Alan Bennett’s 2018 play Allelujah gets a lavishly cast film adaptation but it’s still a headscratcher of a story
“Right, let’s get you vertical”
It’s more than five years since Alan Bennett’s last play premiered at the Bridge Theatre, in something of a coup for Nicholas Hytner at his then-new venture. For this cinematic adaptation of Allelujah, Hytner is on executive producer duty, with Richard Eyre directing a screenplay by Call The Midwife’s Heidi Thomas but in many ways, a lot of the same problems I had with the play persist here.
Set in a geriatric hospital unit in deepest Yorkshire, the staff are doing their best under threat of looming NHS funding cuts but it turns out that there may well be a more existential danger at work too. But with a shorter running time than onstage, the handbreak turn that the film takes is even more jarring than I remembered, undoing so much of the work that has gone before and leaving its newly-added COVID-centred coda floundering.
Just as the play gathered luminaries like Deborah Findlay, Gwen Taylor, Sam Barnett, Sacha Dhawan and more, the film swaddles itself in luxury casting too. Patients at the hospital include Dame Judi, David Bradley, Derek Jacobi and Julia McKenzie, their relatives include Russell Tovey and Lorraine Ashbourne and the staff include Vincent Franklin, Bally Gill and Jennifer Saunders as the brusqely efficient Sister Gilpin (renamed from Gilchrist for some reason or other).
For its first hour, it’s not bad as Thomas revels in Bennett-esque badinage to explore a snapshot of British institutional neglect and decline from immigration policies starving us of the medical staff we need to a social care system not fit for purpose to governmental focus on profits over patients. The toll on staff is particularly well pointed between Gill’s youthfully idealistic Dr Valentine and Saunders’ more well-worn pragmatism (or is it cynicism…).
Within the patients, there’s undoubtedly joy in seeing an ensemble of this quality delivering their bon mots but there’s also a lack of genuine characterisation to really help us see them as people. David Bradley’s ex-miner Joe is the only one who gets any depth of real note and is consquently superb, his relationship with his gay Tory son who just happens to have recommended the closure of the hospital predictable but no less affecting in its unfolding.
And then, and then….things take a turn. In the wake of such scorching recent medical dramas as This Is Going To Hurt and Help examining NHS neglect and the COVID crisis respectively, it’s hard to see what place there is for something like Allelujah with its fudged messaging and though that pandemic-set coda is well-intentioned, it almost makes things worse as it squabbles so much goodwill for the sake of so little.