Judi Dench In A Hospital Drama Searching For Urgency

Jan 14, 2023

TORONTO – Sometimes films with the best intentions just doesn’t come together. A great cast, a notable filmmaker, and fine source material don’t always coalesce. That’s certainly the case with Richard Eyre’s “Allelujah,” which debuted at the 2022 Toronto Film Festival this weekend.
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Based on Alan Bennett’s 2018 play of the same name, the ensemble piece is set at The Bath, a fictional Yorkshire, England hospital whose services have slowly been widdled away by the British government. Currently, it has just a few temporary beds for senior citizens who need assisted care. The staff includes the compassionate young physician Dr. Valentine (Bally Gill), the gruff but seemingly sympathetic head nurse known as “Sister” (Jennifer Saunders, a nice change of pace), and the energetic nurse Pinkney (Jesse Akele), among others. The regulars still experiencing care are highlighted by Ambrose (Derek Jacobi), a former schoolteacher in constant pain, Mary (Judi Dench), a quite shy patient always somewhere in the background (the film could have used a lot more of her), and Joe (David Bradley), a former mine worker who can’t seem to connect to his adult son, Colin (Russell Tovey). Coincidentally, the latter is a consultant for the Ministry of Health who is on a mission to close facilities such as The Bath down (he’s also a rare depiction of a gay Tory member – that’s a “conservative” for us American blokes – which you never see on screen).
While Colin comes arrives at The Bath to check on his father’s tenuous physical state there’s quite a lot going on. The locals are raising money to try and keep the facility going if and when the government pulls the plug, Dr. Valentine has invited a television crew to chronicle how the facility assists its patients, Sister is being honored with a lifetime achievement award, and, of course, the hospital subjects appear to annoy the crap out of one another. A good chunk of the film, however, is spent following Colin and his father’s rough relationship. One more disagreeable over unshared political values than the fact Colin is gay (although that probably doesn’t help).
The film’s main narrative thrust is whether the government will pull its funding for the facility until a much more nefarious storyline rears its head toward the end of the movie. That revelation is a piece of melodrama the proceedings really don’t need, but it’s the last reminder that, yes, this film is very much an adaption of a stage play. Something Eyre and screenwriter Heidi Thomas have admirably concealed up until that point.
Perhaps it worked better as a theatrical endeavor, but the result is a film that feels like a collection of familiar hospital set storylines thrown together without a true compelling throughline. Well, perhaps that’s not the case. Eyre does want to focus the audience’s attention on the importance of the NHS (National Health Service) in the U.K. and the dignity of caring for the aging. And, again, it’s a very noble gesture. Perhaps these particular sets of stories were not the best mechanism to convey that message. In fact, the only real moment when the film has any emotion or urgency is during a flash forward to the height of the pandemic featuring Dr. Valentine. Now, that is the argument to support and expand the NHS that Eyre is searching for.
It should be noted that for better or worse, this is a very British film. Even for Anglophiles some of the dialogue will be decidedly hard to decipher. [C]

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