There is no false romanticism in this cinematic love letter to Britain’s National Health Service. It’s a drama set in a geriatric ward in a small Yorkshire hospital, the “Beth”, which is shortly to close as part of the Government’s latest cost-cutting, streamlining initiative.
We’re in a world of incontinence, dementia and death as well as of mind-boggling bureaucracy. Nonetheless, Allelujah is a moving and uplifting affair – at least until it is sabotaged by a strange final reel plot twist, which seems to belong in another movie altogether, and by a late burst of preachiness. Adapted by screenwriter Heidi Thomas from Alan Bennett’s play, it is full of that mix of whimsical humour and trenchant observation that so often characterises Bennett’s work.
As the story starts, well-wishers are mounting a campaign to keep the hospital open, but this looks like a forlorn hope. A local TV crew has been invited in to show what happens day to day in the much loved hospital that the community is about to lose.
On the wards themselves, Sister Gilpin (Jennifer Saunders) and her staff are working heroically on behalf of their patients. They eat on the run. They’re always tired. They have no time for social lives. Gilpin’s pride is that she keeps a clean, “dry” ward in which the patients are cared for and keep their dignity.
This is an ensemble piece. The main protagonist, who acts as a kind of chorus/commentator, is Dr Valentine (Bally Gill), a selfless figure who tells the audience at the outset that he has “always loved the old”.
The patients on the ward include a diffident but sharply observant former librarian with an interest in the margins of people’s lives (Judi Dench); a poetry-loving ex-teacher (Derek Jacobi); a taciturn patient called Molly (Eileen Davies) who bangs her tray whenever she needs the loo; and the very gruff Joe Colman (David Bradley). He’s from a working-class mining community but has a son Colin (Russell Tovey) who is an advisor to the government – and has recommended that the “Beth” should be shut down.
At times, Allelujah plays like a TV soap opera. It’s a character-based drama with a big cast and many overlapping narrative strands.
We’re building up to a concert that the patients are planning in tribute to Sister Gilpin, who has just won an award. One part of the film is devoted to the relationship between Joe and his son Colin, of whom he is hugely proud, even if they are on different sides of the political divide. Another part concerns the battle being waged against closure by Mr Salter, chair of the hospital trust. He’s a vain and self-important figure who wants to hog the limelight but the point the film makes again and again is that the patients come first. The NHS may be flawed and falling apart but, as we hear, it is also the “net” that holds everybody together and that provides “cradle to the grave” support.
Saunders registers strongly as the Hattie Jacques-like Sister who goes to extreme lengths to keep her ward running smoothly. She’s a stern, selfless but enigmatic figure. Gill, too, is impressive as the idealistic doctor who adores his patients and reveres the idea of the NHS. It could have been an absurd and tokenistic role but he plays it with enough conviction to make it credible.
The Covid references in the final reel are a little jarring. If Allelujah had come out in 2020 or 2021, when the pandemic was still raging, they would have added extra immediacy. Now, they risk making the storytelling seem dated. It’s a pity, too, that the tone late on becomes so didactic and heavy-handed when the film has already made its arguments in such persuasive fashion.
Allelujah is in cinemas now