“Allelujah,” Richard Eyre’s latest film, unfolds in a Yorkshire geriatric hospital, following a group of patients as they make peace with or rage against the indignities of old age. It’s a story that resonates with Eyre, a legendary stage and screen director.
“I’m about to be 80,” he says. “So old age isn’t my consuming passion, but it’s a subject that has been forced on me and that has become difficult to ignore. I’m acutely aware of having outlived both my parents and many of my friends.”
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Perhaps unwittingly, “Allelujah,” which premieres this weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival, also serves as a showcase for a generation of English actors such as Judi Dench, David Bradley, and Derek Jacobi, who have all entered their ninth decades.
“I’m not sure I was fully conscious of it it, but what a privilege to have this professional continuity,” Eyre says. “These are people that I started working with 30 or 40 years ago.”
The film adapts Alan Bennett’s play of the same name, but Eyre says that many radical changes were taken to bring the story from stage to screen. He kept the setting and many of the characters, but reordered the narrative and excised musical numbers that were sung and danced by the geriatric patients.
“I wanted it to be much more real and the play was more of a surreal fantasy,” he says.
But even though the premise seems like it could be a warm and fuzzy look at old folks who remain young at heart, nothing could be further from the incisive story that Eyre and Bennett ultimately tell. “Allelujah” is an indictment of a U.K. health service consumed more with abstract metrics and less with delivering the quality care — an obsession taken to extremes by Jennifer Saunders’ head nurse. It’s also a caustic look at the way that society shunts aside its older members, preferring not to be reminded of the ravages of fading bodies and minds lest they serve as unwelcome reminders of mortality.
“It’s an observed fact that there’s a whole swath of people who are ignored in our culture,” says Eyre. “We don’t have a tradition of families looking after the old and we find the old to be sort of an inconvenience. I wanted to avoid any patronizing sentimentality, which is usually how we treat old age in movies.”
As a filmmaker, Eyre has chosen to make mostly dramas like “Notes on a Scandal” and “The Children Act” that grapple with thorny issues and are aimed at adult crowds. But those kind of movies are few and far between these days.
“It’s extremely hard to make the movies I like,” says Eyre. “They are labeled art films, which is unfair, because there’s nothing in them that are elitist or highfalutin’.”