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A Hospital on Life Support

Pathé UK

Allelujah (2022)

“Allelujah” is the worst of both worlds: It’s a pro-socialized-healthcare polemic that manages to condemn publicly funded medicine; and it’s an expertly made piece of racist trash. It beggars belief how writer Alan Bennett (a beloved British institution, who has been at the heart of the light-comedy scene through his diaries and plays for more than 60 years) and director Richard Eyre, who got a knighthood for his services to drama nearly a quarter-century ago, got it so wrong. And it’s not just that what they meant as a love letter for the National Health Service turned into a rallying cry for its own destruction. It’s that perhaps, in service to drama, they chose to make a movie that can’t tell the difference between mother’s milk and morphine.

It’s set in a geriatric hospital, nicknamed The Beth, in a small northern English town. All the wards are named after famous singers and all the patients (who include Derek Jacobi as a flamboyant ex-teacher, Judi Dench as a nervous mouse and David Bradley as an angry bigot) are looked after by head nurse Sister Gilpin (Jennifer Saunders, who weaponizes her comedic persona very effectively) and Dr. Valentine (Bally Gill, who does sympathetic work in a shameful part). Dr. Valentine is of Indian descent, so has changed his name to make it easier for “everyone” to pronounce, and is also not a British citizen, so spends his spare time asking the patients to help practice his English for his naturalization tests. Despite being a doctor. What is that, if not racist? Almost as bad is the fact that Mr. Bradley’s son Colin (Russell Tovey) is one of the least popular creatures in all of British society: a gay Tory (member of the right-wing Conservative party). He is a special advisor to the minister in charge of the healthcare budget, so ideologically against funding healthcare generally and The Beth in particular, and doesn’t see why people like his dad should mind traveling hundreds of miles from their homes for doctor’s appointments if it’s more cost-efficient. If that’s isn’t villainous enough, when his partner calls Colin greets him with the endearment, “All right, twatface?”

There’s a local TV crew in filming to make a case for saving The Beth, which is important only in that they give the supporting characters some excellent pieces of character work, and Ms. Dench’s character an iPad so she can film the routines of the hospital from a patient’s perspective. What she captures demonstrates the real villain is – well, as utterly horrendous as the film is, it shouldn’t be spoiled. But making that plot choice does the opposite of what Mr. Bennett intended, which was remind everyone of the value of human life, even if that life belongs to an incontinent, frightened geriatric no one loves and who needs round-the-clock nursing just to stay alive. The finale of the movie, which has Mr. Gill walking through Covid-19 wards giving a monologue equating the work the N.H.S. does to love, should have been a tremendous rallying cry, enough to shame the current British government into treating its front-line healthcare workers better than they currently do.

But since it comes after the appalling third act, it stinks of the air freshener needed after a particularly foul shit. Which, unfortunately, is all that “Allelujah” is – a steaming turd of a movie with no redeeming value. How on earth did it get selected for the Toronto International Film Festival? It is so bad it is radioactive. What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. Nothing valued is here. “Allelujah” is best shunned and left forgotten.


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