This film boasts a starry cast. Indeed, with comedy queen Jennifer Saunders in the lead role, alongside British acting legends such as Judi Dench, Julia McKenzie, Derek Jacobi and David Bradley – not to mention the brightly-hued, smiling posters – it promises to be a clever-but-gentle affair, something pleasant for a Sunday afternoon.
Adapted (and updated) by Heidi Thomas from Alan Bennett’s 2018 stage play, Allelujah is an ode to the NHS, as gnarly and wonderful, inspiring and infuriating as the institution itself. I feel like I’ve been lured in by the publicity, before being punched in the gut by a polemic – but I’m not complaining. This is the movie equivalent of a protest song; it’s timely and vital.
Sister Gilpin (Saunders) and Dr Valentine (Bally Gill) work at ‘the Beth’ – a small, crumbling, Yorkshire hospital, specialising in geriatric care. They’re fighting a losing battle against closure, despite the fundraising efforts of local volunteers, but they forge on anyway, doing their best for the elderly patients who need them, offering them compassion and dignity in the last stages of their lives.
Joe (David Bradley) likes it in the Beth. He doesn’t want to go back to the Rowans, the care home where he’s miserable. But his son, Colin (Russell Tovey), is the film’s antagonist, the malevolent Tory hatchet man, who views the hospital dispassionately, from a purely numbers perspective. His relationship with his dad is thorny, but – as they soften towards one another – will he change his mind about the NHS?
Actually, it’s not as clear cut as that. Nothing here is. Under Richard Eyre’s directorship, Allelujah‘s narrative arc is awkward and jarring; it never leads where I anticipate. Instead, it keeps confounding my expectations, pulling me one way and then another, wrong-footing me. Some of the political grandstanding is a little clunky – there are speeches occasionally, in lieu of dialogue – but all of this adds up to something really impactful.
If Sister Gilpin is a microcosm of the Beth, embodying its best and worst, then the Beth is a microcosm of the NHS, encompassing its triumphs and its disasters, its shortcomings and its accomplishments. The final scenes, depicting the heroic work our doctors and nurses did during the pandemic, provide a stark reminder of why we have to fight to keep our health service. It might be troubled, but it’s glorious and it’s ours. “You dismantle it at your peril.”
As the credits roll, there’s a stunned silence in the cinema. Then someone begins to applaud. And we all join in.