As ‘It’s my happy heart I hear’ played loudly through the speakers, I think most people in the invited audience at Ilkley’s wonderful, small independent cinema were genuinely in that mood. It might have helped that they had just been served some excellent coffee and breakfast pastries from Betty’s.
The audience was largely made up of independent cinema owners, distributors, journalists, and others from the industry. Around fifty people from around the North of England had assembled for the Pathé northern advance screening of the film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s acclaimed play Allelujah, which goes on general release on 17 March.
A sense of place
Since it was first shown at film festivals last autumn, Allelujah has received mixed reviews, although many of these critics were from overseas or the capital and have probably never willingly set foot in a post-industrial town in West Yorkshire similar to where the film is located.
And this event was as much about Yorkshire and the North as it was about this particular film. There was real pleasure that Pathé had arranged a screening in Yorkshire and that it was in this setting rather than in a multiplex in a large city. Speaking to many of those present, this type of occasion taking place in the region is rare in an industry that in a lot of ways is still very London-centric, even given the success of previous film and television productions produced in Yorkshire.
It was certainly a day to celebrate the county. The production does have many Yorkshire connections, including of course that the play on which it was based was penned by Leeds-born Alan Bennett (the film was adapted by Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas). Add to that the fact that two of its leading actors, David Bradley and Judi Dench, both hail from York and that the city of Wakefield is a definite contender for best supporting actor, and there was much for the region to be proud of.
Michael Graham, Wakefield council’s cabinet member for culture, leisure, and sport, told me: “We are so excited for the release of Allelujah and seeing our fantastic district in all its glory on the big screen. Scenes were filmed across the city, including at Thornes Park, Clarence Park, and Sandal Castle. And judging by the trailer it looks set to be a big hit and is sure to put Wakefield on the map. I’m looking forward to seeing it later this month.”
A serious joy to watch
So, the important question, What about the film? I thought it was a joy to watch. Yes, it is a little lightweight, yes, it does at times seem a little disjointed (you can tell it is adapted from a play) and yes, the ending is, well it just is, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. But that does not take away from a production that is liberally littered with Bennett’s usual wit and had the audience laughing aloud throughout. It might be considered lightweight, but it is not afraid to address the issues facing the NHS and social care, especially with regard to the care of the elderly and indeed the question: how valuable is an elderly life? An issue troubling the conscience of society during the pandemic.
The film is set in the pre-Covid world in the geriatric ward of the fictional Bethlehem hospital, known by everyone as the ‘Beth’, which is held in high regard by the local West Yorkshire population. The problem is that it is threatened with closure (big is better, well at least cheaper, and it is the bottom line that matters).
It doesn’t help when one of the patients, former miner Joe’s (David Bradley) son Colin (Russell Tovey), is the healthcare management consultant advising the government on the closure. Colin finds his opinions on the closure challenged by his father and what he sees on the ward.
The hospital though is not willing to just roll over and die. They invite a news crew to film their preparations for a concert in honour of the hospital’s most long-serving nurse, Sister Gilpin, superbly played by Jennifer Saunders. As the film’s marketing says, “What could go wrong?”
A celebration of spirit
Allelujah celebrates the spirit of the elderly patients whilst paying a very genuine and heartfelt tribute to the medical staff battling with limited resources and ever-growing demand. It also addresses the problems of social care, where beds are blocked and where patients are much happier in the hospital than in a care home. The very core of the story is best summed up by director Richard Eyre:
“At the end of the film, we see what the consequence of the actions of the two medical practitioners are – the doctor and the nursing sister. Dr Valentine (Bally Gill) is an idealist. The nursing sister (Saunders) is a realist, and that’s really the tension in the film between an ideal world in which the NHS is flawless and a perfect conception. And the reality of the NHS, which is that the government is constantly demanding greater efficiency, greater cost saving, greater cost-effectiveness.”
Would I recommend Allelujah? I most certainly would. It might, like the NHS, not be perfect but it is an enjoyable and thought-provoking experience. I can’t believe that I have written a review and said little or nothing of the cast’s two biggest names, Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi, but that highlights the ensemble nature of the film. I will end with the thoughts of executive producer Cameron McCracken:
“The alchemy achieved by Richard is remarkable. How is it possible to make a film that is both funny and moving yet also politically confrontational? Not only that, but the film also delivers an unexpected twist that totally wrongfoots the audience. They have created a darkly comic tale about surviving old age that also manages to be a clarion call for public health care. That’s quite an achievement!”
Allelujah is in cinemas from Friday 17 March 2023.