The risk of art acting as social commentary is that, with the international news cycle now moving at a staggering pace, it's likely that when the work of art appears, discourse will have moved on. It becomes prudent then to focus instead on endemic problems that persist for years, and at their best, speaking to both the microcosm of the subject in question and the macrocosm of the society in which it occurs. It was in this spirit that beloved playwright Alan Bennett delivered his 2018 play 'Allelujah!' at the National Theatre in London, a portrait of life in a Yorkshire hospital for elderly patients. As well as commenting on the faults in the National Health System (NHS), he was also writing about larger social issues within the United Kingdom.
Bennett's play becomes the basis for acclaimed director Richard Eyre's latest film, with a screenplay adaptation by Heidi Thomas. With the Bethlehem hospital (or "The Beth", as it is affectionately called) scheduled for closure, the staff and patients launch a public awareness campaign to have the decision reversed. This is on top of the enormous workload facing immigrant Indian doctor Dr Valentine (Bally Gill) and head nurse Alma Gilpin (Jennifer Saunders, 'Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie') as they care for the rotation of elderly patients (played by a ensemble that includes Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Julie McKenzie and Eileen Davies). Also present is Colin Coleman (Russell Tovey, TV's 'Looking'), consultant to the Health Minister and integral to the decision to close The Beth. He is visiting his estranged father Joe (David Bradley, 'Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio'), currently a patient, but also to gather intel on the hospital. All the while, a documentary crew films life at The Beth, part of the campaign to save the beloved hospital.
Thomas' screenplay is, for the most part, a simplification (and one could argue, a soap opera-fication) of Bennett's play. In the play, Dr Valentine works under the looming threat of deportation, but the screenplay jettisons this plot line, instead saddling the character with hammy dialogue and frustratingly on-the-nose narration. The rest of the film mostly then wanders aimlessly from character to character, patient to patient, too full of stories to cover to make any of them feel remotely profound. Quite a bit of time is devoted to the relationship between Colin and his father Joe, but nuance escapes the relationship at almost every turn (except where David Bradley's innate talent saves the day in small, gentle moments of stillness). The elderly patients exist to say witty and/or shocking things, the hospital administration exist to be well-meaning buffoons and the hospital staff exist to sigh heavily, put on a brave face and speak almost entirely in inspirational aphorisms.
This isn't to say that the majority of 'Allelujah' isn't at least pleasant to watch. With a cast of this calibre and direction as serviceable as Eyre offers here, the film is ticking all the expected boxes. The problem is just how expected those boxes are, and how over-stuffed the whole affair is. I found myself imagining this as a long-running British TV series, and how much that form would suit this premise better. As it stands, all the ingredients are too slight to be wholly fulfilling or give the cast something to really sink their teeth into, and most notably absent is the natural, biting wit we associate with Bennett's writing. It feels like something is missing here, but the assumption to make is that it's all moving towards exactly the conclusion you expect.
And then we hit the third act.
I'm going to break our usual rule and dive directly into spoilers here, if only because what happens at the end of 'Allejulah' is such a shock that I need some way to unpack it all. Read on only if you are happy to have it all spoiled.
In one of the most unexpected and whiplash-inducing twists in a film in many a year, we are suddenly hit with the revelation that Nurse Gilpin has been poisoning patients to make room for incoming cases, including murdering Joe just as he is getting better. This revelation also exists in Bennett's play, but comes at the end of the first act, giving the play more time to deal with the impact of such a shock. In the film, this comes with barely ten minutes left of the run time, and is delivered in such a manner that you almost have to do a double take just to absorb it. One could see some early work in the film trying to earn this ending thematically, and perhaps if it had been able to land it as a commentary on the plight of the NHS it might have worked, but Eyre and Thomas mishandle it in every way. It comes just as we begin to believe The Beth might be saved, as the happy wholesome ending is in sight. Delivering this blow ensures that the hospital will close and all the good will we have invested in the institution will shatter. Neither Gill nor Saunders know how to play it, so the reveal becomes even more stilted and awkward. As an audience, you feel the rug being pulled out from under you, but not in a good way. It's confusing, disorienting and uncomfortable, all the more so as Dr Valentine's narration tells us that the hospital does indeed close and all its patients are scattered to the wind.
But we aren't done yet.
In one of the most unexpected and whiplash-inducing twists in a film in many a year...
The film then takes an even more baffling turn by jumping forward in time to Dr Valentine, dressed in full PPE, broken and exhausted, working in a COVID ward at the height of the pandemic. It's a nightmarish sequence, with corridors filled with dying patients, rooms of doctors and nurses rushing from bed to bed, the sound of coughing and crying, low lighting and rushing camera. The horror intensifies as we find one of The Beth's patients now hooked up to a breathing machine, dying a painful and shocking death. We then follow Dr Valentine out of the ward, past exhausted nurses sitting on the floor, their heads in their hands, and as he strips off his PPE, Dr Valentine turns to camera and breaks the fourth wall, addressing us directly, speaking of the plight medical staff are under and demanding empathy for their cause. In its final minutes, 'Allelujah' becomes a public service statement on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on medical staff in the UK.
Obviously making such a statement is not only valid but necessary, but what makes this gear-shift in 'Allelujah' so thoroughly baffling is how completely unearned both its twists are, and how neither complements the other. Without the space to truly explore Nurse Gilpin's motives, there's no sense that her actions function as social commentary on the state of the NHS or the notion of health care in general, and then the shift to a statement on respecting nurses and doctors in the midst of the current crisis seems all the stranger when we've just seen a nurse actively killing her patients. That isn't to say that it isn't possible for a film to shift thematic intention in its third act - 'Cabaret' (1972) transforms from an interpersonal drama to a portrait of the rise of Nazism with startling elegance - but these kinds of shifts need to be thematically and dramatically earned. A writer like Bennett is more than capable of this (his shift in the play text of 'The History Boys' is masterful), but whatever nuance he intended with the twist concerning Nurse Gilpin is absent here and the original play certainly pre-dates the rise of COVID-19.
Which begs the question - what on earth is 'Allelujah' actually about? Is it a statement on the state of health care in the UK? Is it a plea for assistance and compassion to health care staff? Is it a damnation of the way we treat our elder citizens? All the pieces are there for any or all of these, but in the bizarre confusion of the ending all of them fall away, and what you're left with is your main character essentially telling the audience off. What seals the fate of the film ultimately is that, for all its good intentions, it has simply come too late. The commentary it ultimately seems to want to deliver is commenting on a discourse that has unfortunately moved on, and I would hope that very few in the audience would not already feel that gratitude the film demands when we're now three years into this pandemic. Who exactly is the film trying to speak to? And what exactly (apart from a feeling of confusion) does it want us to walk away with? The fact that Eyre's direction loses all focus and energy in those final minutes suggests he isn't entirely sure himself.
It's really hard to know what to make of 'Allelujah'. For most of the run time, it's a forgettable but charming distraction, the kind of film you watch late on a Sunday afternoon. You get to watch great actors hanging out in a great setting, throwing witty if unimaginative barbs at one another with some heartwarming moments thrown in. All I can think about though is the ending, caught in a maelstrom of confusion trying to piece together what on earth they were thinking. What should have been a bit of fluff is instead overwhelmed by one of the most calamitous final acts in recent memory.