“I have always loved the old” are some of the first voiceover words we hear from idealistic young Dr. Valentine (Bally Gill) as he heads off to work in “Allelujah,” Richard Eyre’s film (premiering at the Toronto Film Festival) about a hospital in Britain’s state-run health system facing the closure of its geriatric ward. The old are, Valentine tells us, “my work, my joy, my purpose.”
That sentiment could also stand in, though, for the wry yet sincere feelings of its source author, the brilliantly witty English writer Alan Bennett — a channeling master of unvarnished everyday folk, often of the vintage sort, but also a deft chronicler of timeless ways we deal with life’s surface nicks and deeper cuts.
Caring for the aged is at the core of Bennett’s 2018 play “Allelujah!,” adapted by “Call the Midwife” creator Heidi Thomas (who first removed that exclamation point) and, as presented, is a gently eccentric, periodically contrived but sneakily dark and seething comedy-drama about looking out for each other in a casually cruel world.
Hospitals have proved fertile ground for many a dramatist looking to examine life at its most vulnerable, whether from a sickbed or the offices and hallways teeming with overworked staff making heavy decisions. The pandemic has certainly intensified our understanding of how these institutions operate under pressure, and while Bennett’s play was written prior to COVID, it’s no less relevant as a microcosm of a society, especially as it relates to what’s endangered when standards of efficiency overwhelm standards of care.
There’s a healthy dose of humor and warmth in the goings-on at Yorkshire’s Bethlehem “The Beth” Hospital: music therapy singing fills wards named for pop stars; star patients Judi Dench as a retired librarian and Derek Jacobi as a lively English teacher offer plenty of literate charm; and cranky bedridden ex–coal miner Joe (David Bradley) is drawn into a slow dance for the first time in years.
But don’t expect “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” in medical gowns. Bennett’s too pointed and perverse for sentimentality, and while Thomas and Eyre slip occasionally into feel-good vibes, they ultimately leave intact his narrative’s essential anger about the bureaucratic threat to community health care.
Dr. Valentine, appealingly played by Gill, has a rosy, needs-driven approach to his job and life; he’s an Indian immigrant spiritedly working toward citizenship in his off-time (and whose musings about his profession act as intermittent voiceover). He’s contrasted by the more dutifully managerial Sister Gilpin, realized with seen-it-all firmness by Jennifer Saunders. She’s a veteran of the Beth who likes a clean (as in unsoiled-sheets-clean), smoothly running operation with agreeable patients. In collegial moments sharing a takeout meal in their off hours, though, these dedicated workers open up to each other about their calling.
The episodic action occurs over a couple of momentous days. A new patient (Julia McKenzie) arrives in a state of distress with aggressive relatives in tow, while preparations are afoot for a ceremony honoring Sister Gilpin for her years of service. And a documentary crew is on hand to film the ward’s more spirited patients for an upbeat news piece that the nervous hospital chairman (Vincent Franklin) hopes will rally support against the cost-minded government’s axe.
It’s the height of narrative coincidence, then, that health-ministry rep Colin (Russell Tovey) would arrive that day to visit his estranged dad, aforementioned coal miner Joe, who can’t believe any son of his would work for everything he went on strike against under Margaret Thatcher. (He’s more upset that Colin shills for Tories than that he’s gay.) But Colin’s and Joe’s well-written, finely acted exchanges — airing resentments and teasing out reconciliation — are at the heart of Bennett’s sharp-eyed fascination with the passage of time as the thing nobody can escape, that can spark either a retreat or a reckoning.
Death is, of course, the other inevitability, and in “Allelujah” it’s both a background reality commented upon (Jacobi’s character jokes that one of their passed-on wardmates “jumped the queue”) and, later, a foreground concern. Not all moviegoers will be prepared for where the last act goes (before the tacked-on pandemic-set prologue), but it’s to Bennett’s, Eyre’s and screenwriter Thomas’s credit that the elegantly filmed, genteel bustle of wisecracks and sensitivity is, to some extent, a nicely paced smokescreen for its unexpectedly dark turn, and what it wants us to leave us considering: the consequences of a broken society on the business of caring.
“Allelujah” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.