The flatlines of Jennifer Saunders’ hospital drama

Film critic

Duration: 99 minutes. Not rated yet.

TORONTO — You won’t be shouting “Hallelujah!” at the end of the new film “Allelujah” which premiered Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Unless, of course, you shout, “Hallelujah! It’s time to go home!

That’s because the seedy drama, about a struggling hospital for the elderly in England, grows increasingly depressing as it progresses. There’s nothing wrong with a little heartache on the big screen, but not when it comes to indecisive mush. Sure, it’s great to see boffo acting talent together — Jennifer Saunders, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi and more — but they deserve so much better than Jell-O Hospital.

The grating film began as a play at London’s Bridge Theater by writer Alan Bennett, who also wrote “The History Boys”, and much like the 2006 screen version of that show, “Hallelujah”, directed by Richard Eyre, does not comfortably make the leap to cinema. Some scene elements should avoid films and vice versa.

It’s set at The Beth, an infirmary — not long-term care — for the elderly, so there’s a revolving door of patients and death is a regular part of the gig. But it’s at risk of being shut down by the government, and there’s a fundraising effort to save the place. At first, this last chance is what we think the movie is going to be.

No. It’s much darker than that.

Derek Jacobi plays a patient at the Beth.
Courtesy of TIFF

The only bright spot is its young lead character’s sincere faith in personal, attentive patient care. He’s a beaming doctor, who goes by the name Dr. Valentine (Bally Gill) because his patients can’t pronounce his Indian name. He begins by saying “I’ve always loved the old one, and, as played with intense sincerity by Gill, he means it.

He’s the opposite of the depressed and downcast Sister Gilpin (Jennifer Saunders), a nurse who shows little patience with patients and even keeps a rather naughty list of those who wet the bed. She harangues and harangues.

Gill spins in a smooth, yet uncomplicated performance. Not his fault. Bennett wrote a dish as the character of Carebear. Saunders, meanwhile, is treacherously close to turning her freezing nurse into a “French & Saunders” skit. She eventually finds her groove, but at that point the film lost us.

Moments of levity are rare in "Alleluia."
Moments of levity are rare in “Allelujah.”
Courtesy of TIFF

Over the course of several days, a documentary crew is at The Beth shooting a short film about the efforts to keep the seedy building from closing down. Having cameramen around is a forced, lazy device that hampers the story until it serves its only real purpose later on.

Another awkward subplot involves a grumpy old man recovering from an infection (David Bradley) and his cynical, number-busting son (Russell Tovey) who works for the Health Secretary and wants to shut down the very hospital in which his father is staying. His Ebenezer-Scrooge-the-Christmas-morning turnaround is utterly laughable.

Dench and Jacobi play with the gravity and pathos they’re known for, but those are menial roles. Dench’s, in particular, makes his grandmother in the supporting role of “Belfast” look as tall as King Lear.

The wannabe-shocker ending shows an extreme possible consequence of UK National Health Service cost cuts. It’s rushed and barely explained before a final monologue about healthcare workers during the pandemic.

You get a kick start to any ideas that are thrown at you. You may need to visit the WTF Ward.