- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (17/3/2023)
(Reviews of Allelujah; Other People's Children; and Winners)
National treasures rally to the cause of a national treasure in Allelujah, Richard Eyre's adaptation of a 2018 stage play by Alan Bennett. Returning to the big screen for the first time since Tim Fywell's I Capture the Castle (2003), playwright Heidi Thomas has removed the songs that had given the original a Dennis Potterish feel. But she has left the cosy Bennettisms and spiky agitprop intact, with the result that. while it means well, this doesn't make much more than a ha'pence of difference.
Dr Valentine (Bally Gill) has always loved old people and is now committed to saving the Bethlehem geriatric hospital in Wakefield that has been earmarked for closure. As he sets off for work, management consultant Colin Colman (Russell Tovey) boards a train from London to conduct an appraisal of `The Beth', which just happens to have admitted his left-leaning, ex-miner father, Joe (David Bradley).
Sister Alma Gilpin (Jennifer Saunders) greets Valentine, who is expecting a television crew to run a positive story on the hospital for the local news. She warns him that Ambrose Hammersly (Derek Jacobi), a retired English teacher and a stickler for grammar, is in one of his moods because one of his pals has just died. Sister Gilpin makes arrangements with the nearby infirmary to fill the bed and is in no mood to celebrate the fact she is about to be presented with a service award, as she has dementia patient Mrs Maudsley (Julia McKenzie) and a work experience youth (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) to deal with. Nurse Pinkney (Jesse Akele) takes it all in her stride.
While Mr Salter (Vincent Franklin), the non-executive chairman, tries to corner Abdul (Arian Nik) and Kieran (JP Conway) from the news channel, Dr Valentine flits between wards with names like Barbara Cartland and Shirley Bassey to make sure the hospital is having one of its better days. Meanwhile, Colin has arrived and barged past Richard (Paul Butterworth) and Cynthia (Amanda Root) and their Friends of The Beth chuggers in the lobby and gone in search of Joe on Dusty Springfield. He bumps into Sister Gilpin, who heartily disapproves of his connection to the Health Minister. His father feels the same way about the fact his son is gay and blames him for killing his mother.
While Dr Valentine gets hassled by the daughter (Lorraine Ashbourne) and son-in-law (Gerard Horan) of the 92 year-old with dementia, the TV crew interview Ambrose, Neville (Jeffrey Kissoon), Lucille (Marlene Sidaway), Hazel (Marjorie Yates), and Mavis (Patricia England), who give a mix of personal and eccentric answers. Former librarian Mary Moss (Judi Dench) lingers outside, but decides not to join in, as she feels she has nothing to say.
Dr Valentine does his night rounds, thinking about how the NHS is there for every stage of people's lives and how trusting the elderly are about the care they receive because they are no longer able to fend for themselves. Sister Gilpin also likes the hush at lights out, but admonishes Nurse Pinkney for failing to note that Mary had wet herself.
The next day, Colin coldly informs Salter that the kind of geriatric service offered by The Beth doesn't work and is economically ruinous. He ignores arguments about the need for local care by claiming the people voted for the governing party knowing they would make cuts and he can see nothing to justify The Beth's drain on resources. Mary tells Dr Valentine about enjoying marginalia in the books she used to stack and he vows to prevent his patients from being pushed towards the margins or being rubbed out. To that end, he gives Mary a tablet and teaches her how to use the camera so she can make a contribution to the Pennine People report.
While Dr Valentine and Sister Gilpin chat in her car over a takeaway, they share a dream of an ideal ward full of empty beds. But they know reality is crueller and she jokes that the best advice she can give anyone is not to leave it too late to die.
Colin chats to his boyfriend on the phone about Joe feigning a cough to avoid returning to his care home. The next day, Dr Valentine shows him around an empty ward and says hope is being frittered because of finance and Colin sneers. But he watches Sister Gilpin and Andy the work experience kid giving Joe a shower and getting him to dance a few steps to prevent his feet and fingers from swelling. Joe urges Colin to sing, but he refuses. Before heading back to the hotel, however, Colin has a go on Andy's bike and encourages him to get out of Wakefield and give London a try.
While Dr Valentine tries to remove Joe's wedding ring to ease his circulation, Sister Gilpin listens to Mrs Maudsley harping on about her home being stolen. When she fails to make it through the night, the Earnshaws demand answers because they will now have to pay inheritance tax on her property and they tell Valentine and Slater that they want an inquiry because a healthy woman died too soon.
Meanwhile, Gerald the occupational therapist (Ross Tomlinson) runs the choir through the songs for Sister Gilpin's medal presentation. Dr Valentine returns a book of poetry to Ambrose, who gets him to read from Charles Causley's `Ten Types of Hospital Visitor' and asks for reassurance that he can stay on at The Beth. Joe feels the same way and tries to convince Colin during a wheelchair stroll in the garden that hospitals are like the pits that can never be replaced once they've gone.
Having dealt with Joe wetting the bed, Sister Gilpin takes a nocturnal walk with Dr Valentine and reveals how she got into nursing after helping her mother care for the elderly in their community. She had nursed her mother through her illness and had brought the same passion for dignity to The Beth. It annoys her when middle-aged children lament the care their parents receive, when they've been too busy or disinterested to give it themselves.
She returns to the ward to find Joe sitting up. He has called Colin to tell him that Sister Gilpin has put him on her incontinence list and is dismayed to learn that he can return to his home in the morning. Clambering up from his chair, he asks Sister Gilpin for a dance and she says he'll be missed. But he doesn't want the milk when she settles him down and looks frightened when she says she'll leave it in easy reach.
Joe is dead the next morning and doesn't get to know that Colin tells the minister that The Beth should be kept open because the NHS is a complex mechanism with small working parts that rely on each other. Andy discovers the body, just as Mary shows Dr Valentine footage of Sister Gilpin giving doctored milk to Mrs Maudsley and Joe and he rushes to the ward.
He confronts Sister Gilpin, who shrugs that she had targets to meet and beds to find and insists that she was helping put an end to confusion and suffering. She makes a speech and accepts her medal and listens to the choir singing `Get Happy', complete with its line about getting ready for the Judgement Day. But Dr Valentine has called Colin and he demands the body is left untouched until he arrives. He also informs Slater and Sister Gilpin looks round nervously.
She is led away by the police, with Mary watching from her window. Dr Valentine explains that she was jailed for life and that The Beth closed. He is now coping with the Covid pandemic at another hospital and proves to be Ambrose's last visitor. But his faith remains unshaken in the NHS and he speaks directly to the camera to remind us that it strives to overcome its faults to provide cradle-to-grave care that is inspired by love - and that comes without a charge.
Alan Bennett was 83 when he wrote Allelujah for Nicholas Hytner's Bridge Theatre production. Much has happened since then, but the film version limits mention of Coronavirus and the impact that over a decade of Tory platitude and neglect has wrought upon the NHS. Consequently, a number of critics have expressed disappointment at the lack of snap in a screenplay that seems more interested in human nature than politics. After a month viewing all of Bennett's films and teleplays for a BFI article, however, the surprise is that anyone expected him to produce something as savage as Peter Nichols's The National Health (1968) or Lindsay Anderson's Britannia Hospital (1982).
There's something soap operatic about the Sister Gilpin plotline, while it's difficult to overlook a contrivance as whopping as the man holding the Sword of Damocles over The Beth having a father in its care. Even Mary's nocturnal recordings feel forced, especially as Sister Gilpin was a practiced killer and would have checked the lie of the land before administering her fatal doses of milk and morphine. Yet, such is the sincerity of Bennett's writing, the acuity of his insights into the indignity of old age, and the validity of the socio-political points he wants us to ponder that it's possible to forgive the occasional slackness of Richard Eyre's direction and the effusiveness of some of the ensemble acting.
The NHS isn't perfect and never has been. In pleading for tolerance over its shortcomings and patience over its reform, however, Bennett avoids the trap of getting overly nostalgic about its founding principles and the distinctly British brand of egalitarianism that was shattered by Thatcherism. Instead, he has Dr Valentine ask viewers not to `dismiss us for what we cannot do,' as any alternative - especially for a country with a growing elderly population - doesn't bear thinking about. It's not hardly an original or particularly trenchant message and this is far from Bennett's best work. But it isn't the muddled mess that others have claimed.
OTHER PEOPLE'S CHILDREN.
Since debuting with Belle Épine (2010), Rebecca Zlotowski has been steadily bolstering her reputation, with Grand Central (2013) and An Easy Girl (2019) atoning for the misstep made in pairing Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp in Planetarium (2016). She takes another stride in the right direction with Other People's Children, a coolly observed relationship saga that deftly balances everyday incident with the odd moment of profundity.
Parisian lycée teacher Rachel (Virginie Efira) is approaching 40 and her gynaecologist (Frederick Wiseman) warns her that the clock is ticking. Divorced from Paul (Sebastien Pouderoux), she has never seriously considered motherhood and is happy to bond with Leila (Callie Ferreira-Goncalves), the four year-old daughter of car designer Ali (Roschdy Zem), whom she met at a guitar class. They have only just started dating and Rachel is at the phase of gazing admiringly as her new beau showers.
She tells father (Michel Zlotowski) and sister Louana (Yamée Couture) about the liaison over Rosh Hashanah supper and even suggests Ali as a mentor for troubled student, Dylan (Victor Lefebvre), who likes all things mechanical. However, colleague Vincent (Henri-Noël Tabary) is a little disappointed, as he is devoted to Rachel and always has her back at school.
Much to her surprise, Rachel becomes fond of Leila (although she has to hide naked on the balcony the first night they meet when Leila wants to sleep with her father after having a nightmare) and even dispenses with contraception with Ali. She gets to pick her up from judo class and meets her friend's mom, Jeanne (Anne Berest), who has cancer and is pals with Leila's mother, Alice (Chiara Mastroianni). Rachel also gets to experience the panic of losing sight of Leila at a horse show when they holiday in the Carmargue and the pain of having Leila pine for her mother on the train journey home.
On returning to Paris (after being disappointed when her period comes), she discovers that Louana is pregnant and needs convincing that it's a good thing. However, Rachel is hurt when Leila asks Ali why she's always at her flat and insists that Alice is his real girlfriend. He can't understand why a child's throwaway line could cut so deep and Rachel protests that she has changed her entire lifestyle to fit in with their schedule and is now worried that they'll break up and she'll lose touch with Leila and her chance to become a mother.
Having defended Dylan from colleagues prepared to let him leave school, Rachel is pleased to have Dylan's support. But things with Ali are starting to become difficult, as he takes it for granted that Rachel will collect and babysit Leila when he's busy. She buys a seat for her bike, so they can cycle together, but is hurt when she's excluded from Leila's birthday party with Alice's parents.
Alice is also having a tough time because of Jeanne's declining health and Ali dismisses Rachel's suggestion that they discuss the situation with Leila, so she understands. Feeling alone, Rachel accepts Vincent's invitation to lunch and tells him about losing her mother at nine and being torn between maternal feelings and a certain pride at belonging to the sisterhood of non-mothers. He kisses her, but she lets him down tactfully, although she can't control her emotions on meeting Louna's baby and bursts into tears.
She is still feeling fragile when she notices that Jeanne's husband has come to collect their daughter from judo. Ali apologises for not telling her, but she feels sidelined and senses his resentment when she gets shunted on a rainy road and he's more concerned about Leila than her (even though we know she was with her mother when she was killed in a car crash).
Shortly afterwards, Ali announces that he and Alice have agreed to give things another try for Leila's sake. Rachel is distraught, but puts on a brave face when Leila asks why she's crying. Alice apologises to her and she seeks comfort in Vincent. But she fears her moment has passed and feels a pang when she sees Leila playing in the park with Ali. They exchange wistful glances, but she wheels her bike home alone. As the year ends, she moves to a new apartment and bumps into a handsome man at Rosh Hashanah. More importantly, she sees Dylan at the restaurant where he is now waiting tables. He is happy and thanks her for not giving up on him. She leaves the café with a spring in her step.
Echoes of Paul Mazursky's An Unmarried Woman (1978) ring out throughout this thoughtfully grounded drama. Jill Clayburgh won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her performance and Virginie Efira (who has just won a César for Alice Winocour's Paris Memories) is on fine form, as the fortysomething seeking more than just a man in her life. On three or four occasions, George Lechaptois's camera catches an expression that speaks volumes, but Efira is also touchingly impassioned as she defends the wayward Dylan in a staff meeting, vulnerably dignified as she outlines the sacrifices she's made for Ali and Leila, and heartbreakingly brave as she folds the pair into a farewell sandwich hug.
While Zlotowski deserves plaudits for her writing and direction of these scenes, her depiction of Ali is less nuanced. We learn little about his backstory and never see him outside his relationship with Rachel. One could call this a reverse Bechdel approach to male characterisation, but it makes him a cipher and, despite Roschdy Zem's typically astute performance, reduces his behaviour towards Rachel, Leila, and Alice to boorish melodramatics. This is a shame, as Vincent is more deftly delineated, even though we learn nothing about him outside his encounters with Rachel. The same goes for Alice, who is played with finesse by Chiara Mastroianni, as she is caught between her partner's new relationship and the imminent loss of a close friend. This subplot and Louana's pregnancy might have felt soapish in other hands, but Zlotowski makes them feel like facets of lived lives.
She also makes adroit use of Paris, with the twinkling lights of the Eiffel Tower reflecting Rachel's first thrill of romance and the parks reinforcing the unspoiled innocence that the admirable Callie Ferreira-Goncalves brings to Leila. Editor Geraldine Mangenot's use of irises between scenes is also a nice touch, while Robin Coudert's score is pleasingly eclectic. Some the musical cues are a little corny, however, with Vivaldi's Mandolin Concerto in C Major being recycled from Robert Benton's Kramer vs Kramer (1979). The casting of 92 year-old documentarist Frederick Wiseman as a gynaecologist is also a bit peculiar. But Zlotowski (who mines her own experiences) is a perceptive and considered film-maker and she addresses this complex and easily overlookable topic with insight and compassion.
Iran has a proud tradition of films about children, as Hassan Nazer notes in his dedication to Winners. Abbas Kiarostami's Where Is the Friend's House? (1987), Jafar Panahi's The White Balloon (1995), and Majid Majidi's The Colour of Paradise (1999) and The Song of Sparrows (2008) are all referenced in this charming, but delicately subversive picture, which saw Nazer return to the homeland he had left in 2000 to pursue his film-making dream. But the spirit of Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso (1988) also permeates a saga that begins when Asghar Farhadi wins the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for The Salesman (2017), having boycotted the ceremony because of President Donald Trump's anti-Muslim travel ban.
The Oscar is being delivered to Tehran's cinema museum by a woman (Ava Asilian) who asks her taxi driver (Taher Mazloomi) to pull over so she can run an errand. By the time she returns, the car has been moved on by the police and the cabby has deposited the statue at the nearest post office. It winds up at a branch in Garmsar, where it's spotted by an elderly worker, Uncle Ezzat (Ezzatollah Ramazanifar). who can't resist taking it home to show his daughter. As he rides home on his moped, however, the Oscar bounces out of his panier and is found by nine year-olds Yahya (Parsa Maghami) and Leyla (Helia Mohammadkhani).
They work for Naser (Mohammad Reza Naji) and Saber (Hossein Abedini), who have teams scavenging the large rubbish tip on the edge of the town. Yahya and Leyla are only allowed to collect plastics and an older bully spots the glint of metal and demands that Yahya hands over the statue. The pair flee along the railway track and decide that the statue must be valuable. They take it to a shop selling bric-a-brac, but the owner (Asghar Semsarzade) refuses to make an offer because he will never be able to sell such a item.
Using the money they have made from their plastic haul, Yahya and Leyla buys some goldfish and put them into a well pool, where they dangle their feet to cool off. Leyla puts a dress on the statue to cover it up and head back to the village of Padeh on the edge of the Kavir desert. Meanwhile, Uncle Ezzat has informed his female boss (Sharzad Kamelzadeh) of the mishap and she tells him that he will be charged with theft unless he can find the statue.
Yahya is keen to watch Lasse Hallström's Chocolat (2000), which Saber has loaned to him on DVD. He would rather see Cinema Paradiso, but is happy to see anything, as he is obsessed with films. However, his mother (Martine Malalai Zikria) wants him to deliver a kilim and he gets ambushed by the bully looking for the statue. Undaunted, Yahya borrows Cinema Paradiso from Saber and smuggles out a copy of The Song of Sparrows and is surprised by the fact that the lead actor resembles Naser.
The next day, Naser admits that he is in the film, but found the pressure of fame so hard to deal with that he ducked out of the limelight and started this business to make ends meet. He tells Yahya that life can be tough away from the glamour and gives him a bonus for keeping his real identity a secret. He lays into Saber for being so careless and he protests that he has it just as tough, as his own celebrity proved equally transient. They argue, as Naser tells Saber he doesn't want to work with him any longer. But he calms down and retreats to his office, where he gazes at the Silver Bear he won for Best Actor and cries while watching a video of the awards ceremony.
Naser decides to leave and reassume his real name of Mohammad Amir Naji. Saber similarly opts to being Hossein Abedini again (he had starred in Majidi's The Father, 1996) and they put Yahya on a train so that he can deliver the Oscar to Asghar Farhadi in person. While they head into the city, the boy gets picked up by a taxi driver, who seems to know a lot about cinema. Yahya says he looks like Jafar Panahi from Taxi (2015), but he is coy about revealing too much.
Yahya shows him the Oscar, which is still wearing Leyla's blue dress. He recognises the award and calls ahead to Farhadi to say he is about to get a special delivery. As Yahya scurries off with a wave, the yellow taxi pulls back into traffic and passes Naji and Abedini's blue truck. They have pulled over while searching for the cinema museum so that Naji can donate his Silver Bear to the nation. Passers-by recognises them and sidle over to greet them - they may have been out of sight, but they had not been forgotten.
This coda begins with a clapperboard in shot to lend an extra bit of meta-ness to this delightfully self-reflexive dramedy. But it feels a tad anti-climactic after the coup of casting Jafar Panahi (who is seen only from behind) as the cabby ferrying Yahya on his mission. Apparently, Hassan Nazer viewed the film with the official Iranian censor and was dreading him recognising the director and imposing a ban. However, he let the scene pass, although Panahi would be arrested and jailed in July 2022 before being released under house arrest in February this year.
Such harsh realities add frisson to a story that already has numerous poignant moments, whether it's the children leaving their classroom to hurry to the dump to get the best pickings, Yahya's mother explaining how she is a widowed refugee from Afghanistan and wishes her son would stop wasting his time with movies, or Naser sobbing over the Berlin ceremony that has wound up causing him as much pain as pleasure. The scene in which Yahya and Leyla sit with their feet in the pool is also sweet, even though it alludes to the fact that the children will soon be deemed too old to spend such innocent time alone together.
Both Parsa Maghami and Helia Mohammadkhani excel, with the former apparently being a late pick because he reminded Nazer of his younger self. He also has the look of Salvatore Cascio, who had illuminated Cinema Paradiso. Mohammad Amir Naji and Hossein Abedini also impress, with the former's speech about the expectation heaped upon him after his success saying much about fame and the precarious nature of the Iranian film industry.
Cinematographers Arash Seifi and Arash Seyfijamadi capably contrast the bustle of the city with the austerity of the desert village, where the hardscrabble existence centres on the rubbish tip and the scrap yard run by Naser and Saber, who never miss an opportunity to cheat the kids who scavenge for them. Yet Nazer resists sentimentalising the poverty on display, while Mohsen Amini and Mohammad Saeed Shayan's score remains on the jaunty side. Consequently, while this is very much feel-good fare, it is rooted in the kind of reality that made the films mentioned in the first paragraph so affecting and timeless.