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Few playwrights have a voice as unique and recognisable as Alan Bennett, but his idiom can be overpowering. While his work has made the jump to film effectively on a number of occasions, in particular through the interpretations of actors such as Maggie Smith in A Private Function (1984) and Nigel Hawthorne in The Madness of King George (1994), the sheer staginess of the material can dominate to deadening effect, lending an air of artifice to proceedings and hampering some gifted performers. Into this bracket goes Nicholas Hytner’s 2006 film version of The History Boys, now joined by Allelujah, adapted from Bennett’s latest play by Heidi Thomas and directed by Richard Eyre.
Centring on a geriatric ward in a small Yorkshire town, which is threatened with closure because of cuts to the NHS , Allelujah seeks to represent a neglected segment of society, the elderly and infirm, as they spend what may be their last moments in hospital. Here, the simpering and angelic Dr Valentine (Bally Gill) expounds at length on the deep love he feels for his aged charges, including retired English teacher Ambrose (Derek Jacobi) and quiet soul Mary (Judi Dench), who is tasked with making a filmed diary of the ward. Russell Tovey features as a Tory spad (though his political affiliation is never explicitly stated), intent on shutting down the ward; Jennifer Saunders, who seems miscast here, plays the staunch head nurse, Sister Gilpin.
For a project that purports to depict the elderly, Allelujah seems remarkably uninterested in a deep portrayal of the old people at its heart. Here, they amount to bodies that occasionally quip and then die. The film’s impassioned defence of the NHS is welcome, but feels simple and sentimental after the fireworks of the BBC ’s 2022 miniseries This Is Going to Hurt, which more ambiguously mined the difficulties of care in an imperilled workplace. A berserk twist late in the film, handled by Eyre with something like embarrassment, brutally sabotages all of Allelujah’s good intentions. The film’s timescale is woolly. More than a few performances carry a whiff of am-dram. Barring the odd piece of trademark Bennett (“the bonbons are bordering on the frou-frou”) and a peppery turn from the great David Bradley, Allelujah simply lacks welly. Eyre, all at sea, glumly fade-edits from one haphazardly blocked grey scene to another until, as it must, it ends.
► Allelujah is in UK cinemas from Friday.