Hallelujah is the very last thing you’re going to be saying after watching Allejuah. It’s a cringeworthy misfire caked in gruelling, on-the- nose melodrama. Even its pro-NHS message can only carry it so far as it shoots itself in the foot right at the finish line. So headache inducing its missteps that it’s enough to consider booking a hospital appointment for yourself.
An adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play of the same name, Allelujah is set in the geriatric ward of a Yorkshire hospital called The Beth. Starring an ensemble cast of doctors, nurses, patients and visitors, our lead characters are Bally Gill’s Dr. Valentine and Jennifer Saunders’ Sister Gilpin. He’s a leading doctor at the hospital with a particular fondness for the elderly, and she’s the head nurse with decades of experience. Yet The Beth is being threatened with closure from the Conservative government so the public rally behind them. This coincides with a visit from Colin (Russell Tovey), a management consultant working for a Conservative health minister to determine where The Beth should close.
Given the setting, a large portion of the cast is played by legendary elderly actors in their 70s. This includes Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, and David Bradley as Colin’s father Joe. These brilliant actors bring nuggets of nuance and emotional interest to their thankless roles. When the film contemplates the anxieties of ageing and what that does to both the individual and the wider collective, one can see sparks of potential in the narrative.
Yet these are few and far between. Much of the film is focused on being a feel good romp akin to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel despite the constant awareness of death’s finality all around. This tonal choice backfires as it creates melodrama as opposed to genuine involvement. Legitimately difficult subjects such as death and grief are treated with all the urgency and authenticity of a soap opera. The dialogue is just as cloying with its rambunctious spelling out of conflicts and exaggerated emotional projection. This may be an adaptation of a play, but the saccharine writing, direction and score feel closer to a pantomime.
The characters consist of one dimensional caricatures, or at least the ones you can keep track of are. The film attempts to showcase the wide complexities of healthcare work by juggling a large collection of characters. The majority are underdeveloped and the ones that aren’t irritate through their self-righteous personalities. The nurses are uniformly happy despite their draining environments, and the elderly service users’ bouts of confusion are so poorly written that they seem designed to be laughed at rather than with. Old age and its effects are an inevitability of life, but the film’s handling of these are treated as inconveniences rather than intricacies. Gilpin’s seemingly firm but fair treatment of the elderly feels infantilising at best, and the depressing realities juxtapose the mechanical attempts at joviality.
Easily the worst character is the work experience volunteer of Andy (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), a delinquent adolescent who clearly doesn’t want to be there. His indifferent attitude towards the elderly and in firm tiptoes into the realms of cruelty, yet he has no discernible arc. Once we reach the climax, many of these characters are forgotten about entirely. Had the picture focused on, for example, the relationships between Dr. Valentine and the service users, it might have been more tightly placed or earnest in its construction of character and conflict. But in attempting to do a bit of everything, the film ends up doing very little.
Thematically, Allelujah does have concrete ideas. Its staunch beliefs in the value of healthcare and the NHS are admirable. It even goes as far as to directly criticise the Conservative government, who have slowly been dismembering the NHS piece by piece ever since gaining power in 2010. The service was on its knees even before Covid, and the contemporary strike action has highlighted how much damage the Tories have done to this cornerstone of Britain. On its political stances, this film and this reviewer are in agreement.
Yet the final 10 minutes butcher this. Just as it’s wrapping up, a final act twist occurs that seems to have been designed to recontextualise a character’s actions and personal outlook. Following this is a fourth wall break so in your face it’s a wonder the characters didn’t step off of the screen like Samara in The Ring. The execution and tonal shift is so jaw droppingly contrived that it cheapens, even undermines, its themes. It’s a miscalculation of such mind-boggling proportions that the sour taste it leaves behind only gets worse the more you dwell on it.
Allelujah is one of 2023’s first truly awful films. It may have good intentions, but its cheap direction, emotionally vacuous writing and baffling creative choices make its efforts all for naught. Frustratingly, had it cut back on its ensemble and stuck to its initial conflict of frontline workers versus pompous governance, it could have been a powerful feature. But the overreliance on melodrama and worrying lack of regard for its characters leaves it dead on arrival. If anything, its simultaneously corny and depressing presentation is likely to leave you fearing for your future.
Drama | UK, 2022 | 15 | Cinema | 17th March 2023 (UK) | Pathe UK | Dir.Richard Eyre | David Bradley, Judi Dench, Russell Tovey, Jennifer Saunders, Derek Jacobi, Louis Ashbourne Serkis