The last time an Alan Bennett adaptation graced the big screen – in the form of 2015’s The Lady in the Van – one of the defining quotes was (as delivered by the Alex Jennings-played avatar of the man himself) ‘caring is about shit’. With Allelujah, Richard Eyre’s adaptation of Bennett’s theatrical ode to the NHS, this sentiment is more than doubled down upon as we are shown the ins and outs of a geriatric ward in a Yorkshire hospital that has been marked for closure by the Tory government. It’s a potent premise for both laughs and tears, but sadly fails to really deliver on either before being let down by one of the maddest twist endings you’ll see all year.
Set in 2019, with a brief flash-forward to a COVID-stricken coda, Allelujah focuses in on the Bethlehem Hospital, known as ‘The Beth’ to the locals who love and rely on it, and the doctors, nurses, managers, and patients that reside within its walls. A real ensemble piece, Heidi Thomas’s script juggles a lot of plots and characters, which does give a complete picture of the institution, but also makes a lot of these stories feel too lightweight. There’s some genuine heft to the tale of a sickly old father (played by David Bradley) and his Tory consultant son (Russell Tovey), who realises too late what his policies have wrought but, outside of that, Allelujah is too reliant on its performances to provide depth that is missing on the page.
This sometimes pays off – Derek Jacobi is a real highlight as a long-term patient with an abiding love for the intricacies of language and poetry – but often doesn’t, leaving characters feeling incomplete, especially Judi Dench as quiet patient Mary, who is more plot device than person. If there is a leading light, it’s shared between Jennifer Saunders as hard-nosed but caring ward matron Sister Gilpin and Bally Gill as the dedicated Doctor Valentine (a name he’s taken because no one at the hospital can pronounce his real Indian surname), as they look to find ways to save The Beth from defunding.
There is clearly a lot of love for the NHS being poured into Allelujah, which is undeniably warming to see, but this message (especially a final direct-to-camera address about the heroism of the institution) is undermined by a simply mad twist about 15 minutes from the end. It seems to come out of a different film entirely, especially as its announcement comes with its own terrible Scooby Doo-esque music cue (the score is powerfully over-insistent throughout). It is a twist lifted directly from the original play, but if it worked on stage, it certainly doesn’t here, Eyre’s unremarkable and workmanlike direction completely undone by the sheer broad silliness of the moment.
There’s also the problem, a common one in stage to screen adaptations, that a lot of the big laugh lines that would crush in a theatre instead merely elicit polite chuckles in a film (not to mention that all the best gags are already in the film’s trailer). As the marketing has made clear, Allelujah is one of those ‘gentle’ films, one more suited to afternoon viewing on ITV than in a cinema, but, with its twist, ends up being a movie for no one, an anthem for the NHS that is not so much preaching to the choir as it is muttering strangely to itself.