TORONTO — Sometimes movies with the best of intentions just don’t come together. A great cast, a great filmmaker, and a great source don’t always come together. This is certainly the case with “Hallelujah” by Richard Eyre which debuted at the 2022 Toronto Film Festival this weekend.
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Based on Alan BennettA 2018 play of the same name, the set piece is set in The Bath, a fictional hospital in Yorkshire, England whose services have been slowly cut by the UK government. Currently, it only has a few temporary beds for seniors who need assisted care. The staff includes the compassionate young doctor Dr. Valentine (Bally Gil)the gruff but seemingly sympathetic head nurse known as “Sister” (Jennifer Saunders, a nice change of pace), and the energetic nurse Pinkney (jesse akele), among others. The regulars still in care are highlighted by Ambrose (Derek Jacobi), a former teacher in constant suffering, Mary (Judi Dench), a fairly shy patient always somewhere in the background (the movie could have used a lot more of her), and Joe (David Bradley), a former miner who can’t connect to his adult son, Colin (Russell Tovey). Coincidentally, the latter is a consultant for the Department of Health on a mission to shut down facilities such as The Bath down (he’s also a rare depiction of a conservative gay member – he’s a ‘conservative’ for us American guys – that you never see on screen).
As Colin arrives at The Bath to check on his father’s precarious physical condition, quite a bit is going on. Locals are raising money to try and keep the facility going if and when the government pulls the plug, Dr. Valentine has invited a TV crew to tell how the facility is helping its patients, Sister is honored with an award for all of his achievements and, of course, the subjects of the hospital seem to annoy each other. A good part of the film, however, is devoted to the aftermath of the difficult relationship between Colin and his father. One more obnoxious about unshared political values than the fact that Colin is gay (although that probably doesn’t help).
The main narrative focus of the film is whether the government will withdraw its funding from the facility until a much more nefarious scenario looms near the end of the film. This reveal is a piece of melodrama the proceedings really don’t need, but it’s the final reminder that, yes, this movie really is an adaptation of a play. Something Eyre and screenwriter Heidi Thomas admirably concealed so far.
Perhaps it worked best as a theatrical effort, but the result is a film that feels like a collection of familiar hospital scenarios pulled together without any real compelling direction. Well, that may not be the case. Eyre wants to draw public attention to the importance of the NHS (National Health Service) in the UK and the dignity of caring for the elderly. And, again, it’s a very noble gesture. Maybe those particular sets of stories weren’t the best mechanism to deliver that message. In fact, the only real moment the film has any emotion or urgency is during a flash forward during the height of the pandemic featuring Dr. Valentine. Now it’s the argument for supporting and expanding the NHS that Eyre is looking for.
It should be noted that for better or worse, this is a very British movie. Even for Anglophiles, some dialogue will be decidedly difficult to decipher. [C]