Bethlehem Hospital is the legendary institution which gave rise to the word “bedlam” – its name has been reapplied, without obvious irony, to a fictional geriatric hospital in Yorkshire for this gentle, shrewd ensemble comedy, adapted by screenwriter Heidi Thomas from the much-admired 2018 stage play by Alan Bennett with a new Covid-aware coda bolted on to the end. Richard Eyre directs with a sure hand.
The “Beth” is a small community facility which has attracted donations from celebrities after whom various parts of the building are named: the film is mostly set in the Shirley Bassey ward. But it is facing closure from hardfaced Whitehall bean-counters who want giant cost-efficient hospitals or glitzy “centres of excellence” with measurable success rates. Humble, unglamorous geriatric care is however about vulnerable patients who are heading just one way, and their treatment crucially involves kindness and compassion which have nothing to do with the bottom line.
Russell Tovey plays Colin, a Deparment of Health consultant with precisely these prejudices who has to come and visit his ailing ex-miner dad Joe (David Bradley) at the Beth, a cantankerous old guy who has never been able to accept his son’s identity as a gay man. There are no prizes for guessing if Colin’s attitude to both the hospital and his dad is going to thaw – and indeed his initial, shrill attachment to the government line is rather broadly written.
Elsewhere on the ward, Judi Dench plays Mary, a retired librarian with a passion for cataloguing rather than books, but a keen interest in marginalia: the readers’ revealing scribbles at the side of the page. More genuinely bookish is the haughty former teacher Ambrose (he prefers the antique word “schoolmaster”) played by Derek Jacobi who broods over the Charles Causley poem Ten Types Of Hospital Visitor. Julia McKenzie is a woman with dementia whose daughter and son-in-law are desperate to keep her alive for a few more months for inheritance tax reasons (again, a slightly broad characterisation, which might have worked better on stage than on screen). Jesse Akele is the indomitably cheerful Nurse Pinkney. Bally Gill plays the genuinely caring Dr Valentine and Jennifer Saunders is the formidable, no-nonsense ward sister Gilpin who runs a tight ship.
Perhaps the thought of a veteran Brit character-actor lineup in a care setting is a little mawkish, and I incidentally still have grim memories of Dustin Hoffman’s unsufferably patronising 2012 film Quartet with Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Julia Foster and Michael Gambon.
But this watchable, undemanding drama rolls along capably, enlivened by unmistakably Bennettian gags and drolleries which come along every minute or so. Marvelling at a new invention called an iPad, Dench’s librarian purrs: “It’s no thicker than a monthly periodical!” Colin asks the work experience kid (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) wheeling around a trolley of large-print books: “Do you want to feel my feet?” The sullen teen replies: “It’s not top of my list.”
The ostensible purpose and meaning of the film is of course to proclaim the value of the NHS, although you might argue that this faith is slightly deflected or undermined by the big narrative reveal – inspired by well-attested real life cases. But the new Covid section at the end, with its unexpected pivot to drama and crisis, works well enough. A low-key, attractive, if minor Alan Bennett.