Like some kind of cinematic equivalent of the vault in the Tower of London where the Crown jewels are stored, the stage-to-screen adaptation Allelujah piles a number of “national treasures” atop one another: a script based on a play from 2018 by national treasure Alan Bennett (The Madness of King George); a cast featuring such treasured national stars as Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi and Jennifer Saunders; direction from feted theater and film veteran Richard Eyre (Iris, Notes on a Scandal) and so on. It’s all rolled up in a story about the institution every Brit most loves to love and moan about in equal measure, the National Health Service. What could possibly go wrong?
At the risk of having my Leave to Remain resident status in the U.K. revoked, I am sad to report that Allelujah the film is something of a disappointment. It’s not bad as such, but it’s sort of a stodgy mess, nutritious but over-seasoned with melodramatic elements, not unlike a hospital meal. Even its tetchy left-of-center politics, championing the NHS as a deeply flawed but noble cause threatened by venal bean-counting management consultants, seems out of date in the wake of the COVID crisis, which has changed the political landscape.
The Bottom Line
Choppy if well-meaning.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Cast: Jennifer Saunders, Bally Gill, David Bradley, Russell Tovey, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench
Director: Richard Eyre
Screenwriter: Heidi Thomas, based on the play by Alan Bennett
1 hour 39 minutes
After all that pot-banging during lockdown, it seems positively treasonous to suggest that there can be rampant inefficiencies, ineptitude and even evil intent within individual hospitals and health trusts, which is the thrust of Bennett’s final act with its shock reveal.
That said, the filmmakers seem to have twigged that the twist as written in the original play would land awkwardly now, so a postscript that unfolds around 2020 and packs a melancholy punch has been wisely added. The addition is one of the smarter moves in the adaptation by screenwriter Heidi Thomas (Call the Midwife); the journeyman-like expansion keeps many of the zippy one-liners from Bennett’s original but eschews the more magical touches, like the use of an onstage chorus of old folks singing standards, to create something more like traditional, worthy-but-dull BBC realism.
Shot in real hospital wards and corridors in Wakefield and London, the film version keeps the bones of Bennett’s plot intact, with just a few prosthetic attachments and tweaks. A fictional hospital somewhere up north, the Bethlehem, nicknamed the Beth, is a local hospital for local people. Unfortunately, that’s not what the current government, the same toads we have still in power in the U.K. today, wants for the NHS, obsessed as they are with specialization, consolidation and other buzzwords to do with efficiency.
By sheer coincidence, management consultant Colin Coleman (Russell Tovey) has been advising his boss the Minister for Health to close the Beth even though his own father, Joe (David Bradley), has recently been transferred to its geriatric ward to deal with some infections.
As Colin pays a duty visit to see Joe, an angry former miner who homophobically disdains his openly gay son’s lifestyle in London, various members of staff and management get wind of Colin’s power and try to persuade him to save the Beth. Preening CEO Salter (Vincent Franklin) is less persuasive than the boots-on-the-ground medical staff whom Colin can see are doing their best to help people.
That’s especially true of Valentine (Bally Gill), a doctor born in India — his actual name is Valiyaveetil but he changed it to make it easier for Brits — who genuinely cares for his patients. Just as hardworking but less effusive and emotional about the unwell is the head nurse on the ward, Sister Gilpin (Saunders), who is about to retire. The hospital is planning to honor her with a medal for her years of service, which is why a local camera crew has embedded on the men’s and women’s geriatric wards to record daily life there, a scheme Salter hopes will help shift public opinion and stop the closure.
Like the original play, the focus shifts back and forth between the ambulatory characters and the mostly bed-bound elderly, the latter lot an amusingly eclectic bunch that includes aging party girls like Lucille (Marlene Sidaway), grandiloquent former schoolmaster Ambrose (Jacobi), and quiet, observant retired librarian Mary (Dench, seemingly channeling Stephen Root in Office Space to create a squirrelly portrait).
Compared to the beaming, feisty senior citizens typical of Hollywood movies and TV, the folks here are a cranky, ornery, often smelly lot, almost always complaining if they’re of sound enough mind to do so. “Even old people don’t like old people,” someone says at one point, and it has to be admitted there’s an element of truth there.
Allelujah is at its best when it’s accentuating the acerbic, but a certain sentimentality does creep in at times. Truth be told, this is not one of Bennett’s best works compared to, say, such high bars as his screenplay for Prick Up Your Ears, plays like The History Boys or The Lady in the Van, or the copious and reliably insightful journalism he has written over the years for the likes of The London Review of Books and other outlets.
This play and film, on the other hand, feels more schematic and predictable, its characters mostly mouthpieces for longstanding hobbyhorses the author likes to ride. But given his status as 88-year-old national treasure, we can surely let the flaws of this late work slide.