*** DEBUG END ***

Film review: Allelujah

21 March 2023

This film brings the BCP and the NHS together, says Stephen Brown

Jennifer Saunders as Sister Gilpin in the film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play Allelujah

Jennifer Saunders as Sister Gilpin in the film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play Allelujah

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”.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Church Times/RSCM:

Festival of Faith and Music

26 - 28 April 2024

See the full programme on the festival website. 

Early bird tickets available


Church Times/Sarum College:

Traditions of Christian Spirituality

January - May 2024

This is a five-part series on major strands of the Christian spiritual tradition.

Book individual session tickets or sign up for the full programme


Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)