On the surface, Allelujah looks like standard Mother’s Day weekend fare; sweet and a bit twee with a rousing clap for the heroes spirit and the thrilling need to shove a hankie up your sleeve just in case Dame Judi dies at the end.
This is not that film.
It all starts off predictably enough; The Beth is a small Yorkshire hospital under threat of closure and the vulnerable patients in its respected geriatric unit have the most to lose if the battle to save it should fail. Figuratively and literally holding their hands through this turbulent time are Sister Gilpin (Jennifer Saunders) and Dr Valinder Singh Vashish (Bally Gill), who generously adopted the moniker Dr Valentine after patients repeatedly failed to pronounce his name. Dr Val also serves as our narrator.
The inhabitants of the precious beds on the ward are a checklist of sweet and sour, cheeky and confused archetypes, elevated by the presence of some genuine greats. Retired educator Ambrose (Derek Jacobi) lends gravitas while former librarian Mary (Judi Dench) is all reticence and fret. But even these outliers are drawn into the excitement of preparations for Sister Gilpin’s service medal ceremony and the arrival of a film crew to document the fight against closure.
Dr Valentine’s passion and sincere commitment to his patients help endear them to us too. Before long we are drawn into their individual struggles and that of the overworked carers and porters who support them. We understand the Rubicon that is the first incident of incontinence and empathise with those who incur the teasing wrath of Sister Gilpin for crossing it. And we comfortably settle in to meet the visitors to the ward, get judgemental about their choices and enjoy our snacks as the good vs evil narrative of NHS cuts and political callousness plays out. Safe in the knowledge that this is fiction so a reprieve for The Beth is undoubtedly at hand.
Allelujah was adapted from Alan Bennett’s play of the same name and, in the main, retains his distinctive voice despite screenwriter Heidi Thomas making adaptations to address the pandemic. Helmed by Richard Eyre – who previously directed two of Judi Dench’s most critically-acclaimed performances – this is a deceptively gentle journey that takes a jarring detour. Unfortunately, it risks a second handbrake turn and never entirely regains a smooth course. Even with the combined talent of this director and cast, Allelujah cannot quite pull the notes of its diverging plots together and its tone becomes discordant.
Perhaps its hard-hitting ambitions would have been better suited to a miniseries, with room for some ill-explored but interesting backstories to bed in and for the true impact of those twists to be felt. Because they are effective, to an extent. And they pack a punch. But tonally they won’t quite tessellate with the pieces they’ve disrupted so some of their sting is lost. An estranged father/son storyline between David Bradley and Russell Tovey is one of the emotional casualties of their disruption, it is left frustratingly unresolved or underdeveloped with time squandered on Tovey’s governmental role instead.
Where Allelujah does succeed is in the times its extraordinary senior cast is given the room to just be. There is something profoundly moving about seeing these iconic actors in the closing years of their careers playing people in the final months and years of their lives. The cruel beauty of the passage of time is etched into their familiar faces and expressive hands. It hits hard. And even amid an ensemble of truly excellent performances, Bally Gill was astonishing as Dr Val. His narration is first our comfort blanket and then our conscience and both are equally powerful.
If your heart is set on jam, Jerusalem and jolly japes, you’d be better off searching your streaming services for Calendar Girls. However, if you can open your heart and mind to a flawed but thought-provoking feature with something to say about how some of us may spend our final days, Allelujah could be the film for you.
Allelujah opens across the UK on March 17th