17 Mar 23
Movies can sometimes feel so timely, you can be left wondering if the filmmakers had some sort of crystal ball when they were filming.
This thoroughly British comedy about care for the elderly and our beloved NHS – which marks its 75th anniversary this year – comes from the pens of national treasure Alan Bennett (The Madness Of King George, The History Boys, The Lady In The Van) and Heidi Thomas (creator of Call The Midwife and Upstairs Downstairs). It's directed by fellow veteran Richard Eyre (Iris, Notes On A Scandal) and features a glittering who's who of stage and screen.
The action takes place almost entirely within the geriatric ward of a small Yorkshire hospital, known as The Beth, which is under threat of imminent closure.
The local community is valiantly fighting back, inviting a local TV news crew to document preparations for a concert to honour its senior staffer, the old-school Nurse Gilpin (Jennifer Saunders). Contrasting sharply with her pragmatic, no-nonsense manner are her upbeat colleagues, the idealistic Dr Valentine (Bally Gill) and the bubbly Nurse Pinkney (Jesse Akele).
Many of the patients, all with their own hilarious idiosyncrasies, don't have long to go, while others, like Joe Colman (David Bradley), don't want to get better, lest they get moved back to their care homes.
The Beth provides a haven for all. In a strange twist of fate, Joe's estranged son, Colin (Russell Tovey), a management consultant, is advising the government on hospital closures, supporting their effort to cut costs. As expected, father and son spar but the more time Colin spends at the hospital, the more conflicted he becomes.
Nothing is quite as it seems at The Beth, which lends the film a neat edge of unpredictability. Just as you are getting settled in for a cosy senior comedy, a twist pops up to jolt you out of your seat.
Bennett is at his provocative and subversive best, challenging the audience but doing so with wit and humanity. Needless to say, the idea of Whitehall deciding the fate of a care facility hundreds of miles away, reducing it to a line item on a spreadsheet, rings eerily true in today's climate.
As does the film's core message: that we should pay more attention to the subject of care for the elderly, and to the current plight of our National Health Service. It is, as the film so eloquently points out, part of the fabric of our society – the glue that holds us together. The system is not perfect, stretched beyond breaking point, but the idea of dismantling such a vital institution hardly seems in the best interests of the many who benefit from it.
With a dream cast led by Jennifer Saunders – playing brilliantly against type – and rounded out by the Best of British, including Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi, Allelujah is a funny, heartfelt and urgent tale for our times.
It is also a fitting tribute to all those who work punishing hours, day in, day out, to keep us safe and well. Ed Gibbs
Was Alan Bennett's writing one of the key draws of Allelujah?
My generation grew up with Alan Bennett's plays, plus Talking Heads on the television. He's a national treasure. You can hear his voice in everything that he does. What I loved about the script was the fact that it catches you by surprise – nothing is ever quite
as it seems.
What is so special about his writing?
He writes these great jokes and these marvellous characters, and then suddenly he'll hit you with a reality that really makes you sit up and pay attention. He has this tremendous ability to make you laugh and cry at the same time. He's so funny and you can hear his voice through all of the characters.
Why does the NHS hold a special place in UK society?
When you go to other countries that do not have public healthcare and you realise how much people pay for basic medication, it's shocking. We love the NHS because we own it: it's ours.
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