Those familiar with Alan Bennett’s 2018 play Allelujah! might be surprised to hear that this film adaptation will be released in British cinemas early next year, sans exclamation mark, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the National Health Service. (The play itself was originally staged to mark its 70th.) No spoilers, obviously. But this darkly amusing moral tale, set in the geriatric ward of a failing Yorkshire hospital, is less a felt-tip rainbow-in-the-window tribute to the NHS than a hastily scrawled warning sign taped to the gatepost.
Richard Eyre’s film, which premiered at Toronto this evening, might look at first to the uninitiated like a Peter Kay or Victoria Wood project, never mind a Bennett one. There are awkwardly twee pop singalongs; a squabbling chorus of long-term patients (Derek Jacobi is especially good as a retired English teacher); wards named after Shirley Bassey and Dusty Springfield. But Heidi Thomas’s screenplay, cannily expanding a little on Bennett’s glisteningly witty original script, shows its hand with tactical finesse. Targets and cutbacks can cause destructive mindsets to fester among both staff and public, but undue reverence or faith can also blind us to deficiency – and worse.
Jennifer Saunders leads the ensemble cast as Sister Gilpin, one of those no-nonsense mavens whose brisk efficiency and earthy sense of humour are the very image of public healthcare done right. Except Bethlehem Hospital – known locally as “the Beth” – is floundering: services are being stripped away and redeployed, despite the passion and dedication of staff like Dr Valentine (Bally Gill), who delivers the moral in a punchy epilogue set during the pandemic which brings the hitherto-timeless drama crashing up to date. Meanwhile, Russell Tovey’s Colin, a consultant working at the Department of Health, arrives from London to visit his ailing father (David Bradley), and has to reckon with the frontline effects of the policy shifts he himself has helped bring about.
There’s a small, slightly detached supporting role for Judi Dench, who spends much of the film in relative isolation: while the part ends up being pivotal, most of the fun here is to be had when characters rattle and veer into one another throughout the endless daily cycle of life on the wards, to dependably comic and/or moving effect. A late plot twist startles, but the nuance of the film’s overall position survives the bump. Wry, sly and rousing, it's enough to get you out on the doorstep to bang for Bennett, saucepan and wooden spoon in hand.
Cert TBC. Playing at the Toronto Film Festival. In UK cinemas from Friday 17th February 2023