THE film Allelujah (Cert. 12A) feels like another stage in Alan Bennett’s spiritual journey. He is someone owing considerable debt to a Christian upbringing. Scripts are frequently reflections developed out of his church background, worshipping at St Barthomew’s, Leeds. His Beyond the Fringe sermon contains an underlying affection for clergy striving to express the ineffable. In The Old Country, the British spy exiled in the USSR learns of the C of E’s liturgical reforms. Outraged at the impertinence of turning the Creed’s “I” into “We”, he asks how one can possibly know what anybody else believes.
Bennett continues throughout his career to employ religious imagery from his youth, whatever social ills he focuses on. He examines education via The History Boys. It abounds in scriptural quotes (the Authorised Version, of course). The adaptation of Bennett’s play Allelujah by Heidi Thomas (Call the Midwife) considers the situation of the NHS. Bennett, being Bennett, cannot help using God-talk. The title’s Hebrew word of praise of the divine is applied, with qualifications, to the Health Service, although not without blindness to managerial ineptitude.
Set in the Bethlehem Hospital, Yorkshire, the film makes the connotations of Bedlam all too apparent. Action mostly occurs in the Shirley Bassey ward, run as efficiently as is possible under the circumstances by Sister Gilpin (Jennifer Saunders). A veritable repertory company of character actors play the patients and try the patience of carers. Derek Jacobi ominously peruses Charles Causley’s poem “Ten Types of Hospital Visitors” (“The tenth visitor Is not usually named”); for this particular Bethlehem isn’t a place of birth, but God’s waiting room.
Judi Dench is an ex-librarian pluckily engaging with information technology. Valentine (Bally Gill), an Indian doctor, is the saintly heart and soul of an institution heroically looking after its residents amid ever-threatening chaos. In the face of government jobsworths intent on funding cuts, he reminds those with ears to hear: “We are love itself and for love there is no charge.”
A good deal of laugh-out-loud humour (not necessarily related to mortality) punctuates the film. These people have led significant lives — and many still do. The ward choir, belting out numbers, provides a running commentary on proceedings. This “Hallelujah Chorus”, a throwback from the play, probably worked better then. Although Richard Eyre has directed several movies, one feels that he is more comfortable with stage productions. The piece isn’t helped by the clunky addition of a post-Covid epilogue.
Overall, the sum is less than its parts. Great cameos by accomplished actors do not compensate for a rather predictable storyline. Bennett has been described as a quiet radical. In a land of lost content, he is retracing roots back to old values, while aware that there is the constant need for reappraisal. You could argue that Allelujah is a prayer inspired by Bennett’s nostalgia for the Prayer Book communion service. The film enjoins us not to lose sight of our God-given duty “to comfort and succour all them, who in this transitory life are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity”.