Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

dir Richard Eyre
scr Heidi Thomas
prd Damian Jones, Kevin Loader
with Jennifer Saunders, Bally Gill, Russell Tovey, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, David Bradley, Lorraine Ashbourne, Louis Ashbourne-Serkis, Jesse Akele, Ross Tomlinson, Arian Nik, JP Conway
release UK 17.Feb.23
22/UK Pathe 1h39

saunders tovey bradley
london film fest

Is it streaming?

dench and gill
Based on the Alan Bennett play, this gently edgy comedy is a celebration of the tenacity of Britain's National Health Service in the face of relentless government interference, from sell-offs to cutbacks. It's is a remarkably complex, engagingly freeform romp. And coming on the heels of a pandemic, it could hardly be more timely. But the filmmakers hold their biggest statement until a powerful wallop in the final moments.
In West Yorkshire, Bethlehem Hospital is being squeezed out of existence by reduced funding and privatisation. As campaigners raise cash to "save the Beth", head nurse Gilpin (Saunders) continues to care for geriatric patients alongside Dr Valentine (Gill). Then Colin (Tovey) arrives from London to visit his father Joe (Bradley). He also works for the government's health minister and has been asked to verify that the Beth is ready to shut down. Meanwhile, a documentary crew (Nik and Conway) is filming a piece for local television, capturing more than they bargained for with their cameras.
Amid these plot strands, the film features warmly observational scenes that centre on interaction between staff and patients, a few of whom become more central to the narrative. Along with Bradley's wonderfully acerbic Joe, these include Dench's Mary, who is given an iPad by the crew to shoot her own footage, and Jacobi's hilariously preening Ambrose. Each has a distinct relationship with Gilpin and Valentine, creating a remarkably textured depiction of how hospitals work, especially when caring for the elderly.

There isn't a weak link in this tight ensemble. Even the heightened characters are sharply portrayed with shadings and edges. At the centre, Saunders and Gill convey efficiency in a difficult situation, showing complex compassion, understanding and biting wit. Tovey is solid in a pivotal role as an outsider who begins to understand that health care is about far more than making a profit. And Bradley gives the stand-out performance as a man who says what he thinks, fully aware of the impact of his words.

Along the way, the realistic humour undercuts expected waves of emotion. It's obvious that not all patients are going to make it to the final credits, so there are some wrenching moments along the way as relatives deal with their grief, often expressing anger at the medical professionals. A huge plot point in the final act kind of undercuts the irony and power of these scenes, propelling the film into a rather abrupt epilogue. But by then, the message is ringing too loudly to ignore.

cert 12 themes, language 9.Oct.22 lff

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© 2022 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall