Derek Jacobi

Allelujah

17/03/23

Cineworld, Edinburgh

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.

It’s not.

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.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

What a Carve Up!

11/11/20

Barn Theatre Online

Jonathan Coe’s acclaimed satirical novel of the early 90s is an intriguing choice for a theatrical adaptation, especially when it has been filmed during lockdown with a socially distanced cast. Indeed, it’s hard to know quite how to categorise this co-production between the Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley Theatre and New Wolsey Theatre – though the word uppermost in my mind is ‘ingenious.’

It’s essentially a film – it had to be – and yet it feels unmistakably theatrical. There are just three physically present actors on this virtual stage, and indeed only two of them actually share a scene (even then, I can’t be sure they didn’t use a special effect). But, through clever use of stock footage, memorabilia, posters and still images – and with character voiceovers supplied by stalwarts like Derek Jacobi, Rebecca Front, Griff Rhys Jones and Stephen Fry, it feels somehow like a big cast is at work here.

Staged rather like one of those amateur ‘true crime’ shows to be found on social media, Alfred Enoch stars as Raymond Owen, who, years after the event, is re-examining an old murder case for which his father, the novelist Michael Owen, was been widely blamed. The victims were six members of the rich and powerful Winshaw family, movers and shakers in the Thatcher era, all of them killed in highly theatrical ways (much like the critics murdered by Vincent Price’s character in Theatre of Blood).

But Raymond feels he has uncovered new evidence that proves his father couldn’t have been the killer. Elsewhere, The Journalist (Tamzin Outhwaite) interviews the sole surviving member of the Winshaw clan, Josephine Winshaw-Eaves (Fiona Button) about some of the strange irregularities of the case. Button is excellent, all wide-eyed innocence at on moment and then cuttingly vitriolic the next.

What ensues is a labyrinthine story that drags the viewer from one possibility to the next. Coe’s tale has been brought bang up to date with mentions of Dominic Cummings and Covid and makes it quite clear that not much has changed since the nineties, with the rich and privileged still exerting a malign influence over the world of politics.

Tickets for this show can be booked online and once downloaded, viewers have 48 hours to watch the piece before the link expires. While it’s not as good as an actual live visit to a show, it’s certainly the closest we can hope for at the moment and all profits will go to supporting regional theatres.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Tolkien

04/05/19

The Tolkien Estate have taken against this biopic of the famous writer in no uncertain terms, but it’s hard to understand exactly why. As embodied by Nicholas Hoult, he’s an admirable fellow:¬†handsome, witty and completely loyal to his friends – all attributes that he would eventually hand on to his fictional characters in¬†The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

The film concerns itself mostly with the writer’s early years: his childhood in Sarehole, Worcestershire (which would become the model for ‘The Shire’); his time at a boarding house in Birmingham, after the death of his mother, where he meets and eventually falls in love with fellow orphan, Edith Bratt (Lily Collins); and his school years at King Edward’s, Birmingham, where he and three close friends found a secret society, the TCBS. This fellowship continues when the boys go on to University, and it remains strong until the First World War intervenes and changes everything.

Director Dome Karukoski and screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford are keen to show how Tolkien’s horrific experiences at the Battle of the Sommes contributed to the imagery that would dominate his future books, and the sequences that depict mythical beasts rising from the carnage of trench warfare are perhaps the strongest scenes here, handsomely mounted and never overdone. Tolkien’s protracted courtship of Edith, while rather less spectacular, is also nicely handled, and Hoult and Collins make an engaging couple. There’s a nice cameo by Derek Jacobi as the Oxford Professor who encourages Tolkien to develop his flair for languages, and another from Colm Meaney as the Catholic priest charged with the responsibility of ensuring that things work out for Tolkien in the long run.

While it’s certainly a gentle and low key affair, I find the film absorbing and, ironically, much more interesting than the great books themselves, which – try as I might – I have never really managed to enjoy. Don’t tell the Tolkien Estate. They’ll probably sue me. For heresy.

4 stars

Philip Caveney