I hope this film, called ‘Alleluja’, is still on the Kent cinema circuit, as I highly recommend it. It is a 90-minute film about a geriatric hospital, called ‘the Beth’, in Wakefield in the north of England. Based on a play by Alan Bennett, film script by Heidi Thomas (of ‘Call the Midwife’) and with an amazing acting team of now elderly stars (Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi) along with Jennifer Saunders, Jesse Akele and a handsome Indian doctor, in appearance resembling the current Prime Minister, why were the critics so lukewarm about it?
Some call it a love song to the NHS. So, what’s wrong with that? A lot of it is just mildly amusing scenes from the geriatric ward. But the storyline is that the health committee in London plan to close the Beth for cost reasons. However, the local people love it. The ‘Friends of the Beth’ arrange fund-raising events. The Chairman of the Board presides along with the Mayor. A film crew comes along to give publicity. The private consultant who is spear-heading the plan to obliterate the Beth is a local boy who made good in London. He converted to ‘the other side’ from his roots in a mining family. His father is now a lung-smitten patient in the Beth.
Gritty Northern wit
Personally, as I am now experiencing what geriatric care involves (my husband being in full-time NHS care currently), I was fascinated to see this screen projection of it. The medical and care details are well picked out, as one would expect from the ‘Call the Midwife’ creator. For instance, the ex-miner suffers from swelling fingers, so his wedding ring has to be taken off by the doctor. This is exactly what happened with my husband. There is the indignity of the decline into incontinence.
‘You are on my list now’, says the nurse. ‘It is all relative’, says the ex-teacher (Derek Jacobi) grandly. I guess most of the witty use of Northern common sense sayings comes from the original Alan Bennett play. Although living in the South East now, I have not forgotten the grit in the wit of the North East (we were in Teesside).
I also loved the use of Charles Causley’s poem, ‘10 types of hospital visitor’. Its coda of ‘the last visitor is not usually named’ is whispered by the ex-teacher on his death-bed.
Social, political and ethical questions
I wonder whether the critics were so lukewarm because of expectations that it would have more Viagra romance, a kind of Best Exotic Marigold Hotel relocated to Wakefield. Judi Dench, although she plays her scenes poignantly as an ex-librarian, appears to have rather a marginal role until the shock of the end, when it is apparent that her actions were essential to a startling final twist.
I was amazed to see in the credits a team of experts for ‘India’ when the whole film is set in Wakefield. Were all these people contracted just to advise Bally Gill, who plays Dr Valentine, the Indian doctor, so excellently? There are some delicate matters, such as his immigration status and wish to take the exams to get British nationality. But really, when the NHS has been mainly staffed by ‘foreigners’ for decades, is this even an issue? More importantly, it is his role as a doctor that is salient in the ethics that appear at the end.
There are mind-bending social, political and ethical questions running through the plot: cost counting versus values like trust and love that have no price; decisions made by accountants in London versus local loyalties; episodes of tender professional care versus whether these geriatric patients should just be euthanised sooner.
‘I love my patients’
I think what I valued in this film were the episodes showing each patient’s individuality and quirkiness as they interacted with each other or their carers. This is why Dr Valentine could say with such conviction that he loves his patients. I think I can honestly say the same about my care home experience. I was amazed to talk with a cleaner the other day who says she prefers her job at the care home (and it is not well paid) to her previous job in finance, simply because of the interactions with the patients. All of them have dementia, but they still project their various personalities.