Jennifer Saunders' new movie has the wildest twist ending of the year

jennifer saunders, allelujah
Jennifer Saunders' new movie has a wild twist Rob Youngson/Pathe UK

Allelujah spoilers follow.

Allelujah, on paper, looks exactly like the sort of cosy, feel-good British comedy we're treated to three or four times per year. They're the bread and butter of this industry. Set in Wakefield, Yorkshire, it centres on a fictional hospital called The Bethlehem, whose geriatric ward is currently facing the threat of closure.

Directed by Richard Eyre, it follows the staff – including Bally Gill's Dr Valentine and Jennifer Saunders' Sister Gilpin – who have dedicated their lives to the care of others, as well as a local health-ministry rep Colin (Russell Tovey), whose visits to his estranged father (David Bradley) shift his perspective on the NHS.

It also happens to feature its own supergroup of veteran British thespians, including Bradley, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi and Eileen Davies.

Released this year to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the National Health Service, it's both a celebration of its workers and a plea for its future. So far, so Full Monty, Calendar Girls, Brassed Off, Pride, The Duke…

But you'd never guess how it ends.

judi dench, allelujah
Rob Youngson/Pathe UK

How does Allelujah end?

MASSIVE SPOILERS follow, so don't read on if you've not seen the film.

You're sure? Okay then.

Allelujah, somehow, features a final reel twist that out-twists even M Night Shyamalan. It may very well be the biggest cinematic rug-pull of the year. As it turns out, not all at The Beth is as cosy as it seems – there's a murderer stalking the halls.

Dr Valentine gifts one of his patients, Dench's ex-librarian Mary, an iPad so that she can document her everyday experiences on the ward. Throughout the film, we see her in the background, capturing little bits of footage here and there. On the day Sister Gilpin is due to receive a special commendation for her work, Mary takes Dr Valentine aside and insists he watches the film she's recorded.

What it shows is Sister Gilpin, looking awfully suspicious, handing over a beaker of warm milk to a patient who later mysteriously died in her sleep – and then to Colin's father. Dr Valentine rushes to the man’s bedside, only to discover that he, too, is now dead. Sister Gilpin has been secretly dosing her patients with a lethal concoction of drugs. While she's allowed to make her speech at the day's ceremony, as planned, a voiceover informs us that she was promptly arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for her crimes.

ross tomlinson, allelujah
Rob Youngson/Pathe UK

The Beth is closed down. We find Dr Valentine some time later, working in an Intensive Care Unit, filled with COVID-19 patients. He delivers a monologue directly into the camera, in which he declares: "We will be here for you when you are old. We would die for you. We are love itself. And for love, there is no charge."

Sister Gilpin claims that she's actually a blessing to her patients, allowing them to pass peacefully in the night and easing their pain. "I had targets to meet," she adds, arguing that this was her (perverse) way of freeing up beds for those in need.

There are, in fact, several hints as to what Sister Gilpin's up to earlier on in the film: Allelujah opens with the death of a patient, Mr Jessop, which leads Jacobi's Ambrose to complain that he's “jumped the queue”. That suggests his death was somewhat untimely. Sister Gilpin fields multiple calls from the City Infirmary, who are desperately looking for free beds.

How did critics react?

Allelujah has received a relatively mixed response from critics. Variety's Guy Lodge believes that the twist "catches the audience suitably off-guard", while Screen Daily's Wendy Ide suggests its "fervently pro-NHS message is somewhat undermined by a key plot point which calls into question the quality of care it provides".

Much of the relative division here has to do with the film’s source material – it's actually a version of Alan Bennett's 2018 play Allelujah!, adapted by Call the Midwife's Heidi Thomas. Bennett's observational tone has always made room for more tragic impulses, but the film has been deliberately sold as something far cheerier. Could that impact how it's received by wider audiences? We’ll have to see.

Allelujah is out now in UK cinemas.

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