Starring: Bally Gill, Jennifer Saunders, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, David Bradley, Russell Tovey, Julia McKenzie
Director: Richard Eyre
Shot at a time when weekly claps for the UK’s frontline workers were very much reverberating during the Covid pandemic lockdowns, this film based on an Alan Bennett play has the National Health Service (NHS) at its very heart. Oscar-winning actor Dame Judi Dench is joined by an array of talented actors, including British Indian theatre actor Bally Gill in his first major feature film role.
Dr Valentine (Gill) is an Indian doctor who finds himself in a small Yorkshire town’s geriatric ward in a historic NHS hospital – the Beth – which is on the verge of closure. The charming and caring young medic is determined to do all he can to keep the Beth up and running, especially given the very palpable need within an ageing local community.
In dedicated and tireless nurse Sister Gilpin (Saunders), Dr Valentine finds a close ally who is not only the perfect senior colleague but also a supportive mother figure for a lonely migrant doctor who is miles away from home studying for his Life in the UK exam to be able to eventually call Britain his home. Together the duo goes about their busy shifts caring for ageing patients in the Shirley Bassey Ward – the only surviving wing of the Beth that could be shut down any day.
A camera crew is recruited as a last-ditch effort to shine a light on the many facets of the ward’s enduring value to the community and convince the government against squeezing it out as part of wider NHS cuts. When NHS consultant Colin Colman (Tovey) comes in close contact with the Beth while visiting his ailing elderly father, the warmth and compassion of the ward overturns even his entrenched cost-cutting instincts.
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Meanwhile, each of the patients fight their little battles, some with the support of their loved ones but many others abandoned to the mercy of the Beth in their old age. Among them is the shy and retiring Mary Moss (Dench), whose loneliness compels Dr Valentine to try and bring the retired librarian out of her shell. He hands her an iPad with a free rein to capture life at the Shirley Bassey Ward for the camera crew to use in their film. But will her new-found role as an amateur filmmaker capture more than what Dr Valentine and the system are ready to confront?
‘Allelujah’ is like a beautiful love letter to the NHS and a gentle nudge for us to never forget the emotions behind those weekly claps we all enthusiastically participated in at the peak of a scary pandemic. It concludes on a passionate note, delivered movingly by Gill – who excels in his performance as the kind of NHS doctor we would all want by our side in our hour of need.
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Saunders is very believable as the no-nonsense yet supportive head nurse, the backbone of a creaking care system that is crumbling all around her. Dame Judi as the fragile and reclusive patient on the margins of society is simply flawless.
On the whole, this small film with a big heart will leave audiences deeply moved as they are reminded of their ageing loved ones or indeed their own sunset years.