This take on Alan Bennett’s pre-pandemic play, a love letter to the NHS set on a geriatric ward in Wakefield’s beloved-but-threatened Bethlehem Hospital (‘The Beth’), ticks along amiably enough for an hour or so. Then, like a hand grenade in a tombola, a harrowing third-act twist detonates beneath it and narrative and tonal destruction ensues.
The shame is that Allelujah, generously cast with national treasures like Judi Dench, Jennifer Saunders and Derek Jacobi, and full of the spirit of those nostalgic ‘Clap for Carers’ days, doesn’t need storytelling fireworks to get its point across.
Director Richard Eyre (The Children Act) presides unfussily over a heartfelt celebration of NHS doctors and nurses, and the ‘cradle to the grave’ ethos of the health service, elevated by some spiky Bennett one-liners about the ravages of old age and the value of community.
Bally Gill’s kindly Dr Valentine is the film’s heart: the embodiment of the NHS’s selflessly altruistic ethos, who patrols the small ward, charming the patients. Albeit, given the choice, they’d probably take a visit from ‘Gorgeous Gerald’ the physio (‘He gives me tissue massage on my lymphomania,’ coos one long-term in-patient). But Valentine is the one who keeps death from the door with his life-affirming vibes and determination to keep his patients active.
Significantly for that later twist, Valentine coaxes Dench’s reticent Mary Moss from the periphery with a new tablet to record footage from the ward – a kind of Chekhov’s iPad – to contribute to the local TV crew’s story on the hospital’s fundraiser.
The startling third-act twist arrives like a hand grenade in a tombola
There don’t seem to be any outright villains in Allelujah – not even Russell Tovey’s management consultant, whose visit on behalf of the Health Minister to sign the Beth’s death warrant is muddied by the presence of his estranged, ailing dad (David Bradley) in one of its beds. And definitely not Jennifer Saunders’ brisk, no-nonsense matron, whose desire to run a ship-shape, pee-free ward feels like a losing battle. Screenwriter Heidi Thomas (Call the Midwife) resists the temptation to crank up her Nurse Ratched-ness in the adaptation, allowing the impressive Saunders to depict a believable kind of tough love.
Everything seems to be ambling towards a bittersweet, if predictable ending – up the NHS! Down with the Tories! – until that ill-judged twist undermines everything that came before. Then – whoosh – we’re fast-forwarding to a completely incongruous vérité-style sequence on a Covid ward that seems to have been bolted on for topicality’s sake. If a film could give you whiplash, this one would keep Gorgeous Gerald busy for months.
In UK cinemas Mar 17.