By Chris Byrd | Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — When it debuted on Britain’s Channel 4 last September, “Help” was well-received by critics and viewers alike.
The 98-minute film — which makes its North American premiere Monday, Jan. 31, on the Acorn streaming service — lives up to its advance billing; it’s not only topical but finely acted and compassionately rendered.
Written by BAFTA Award-winning screenwriter Jack Thorne and directed by Marc Munden — the pair previously collaborated on the highly regarded 2016 crime drama “National Treasure” — the story is set in the fictitious Bright Sky Homes for Alzheimer’s patients in Liverpool, England, just as the pandemic is emerging.
The mature nature of the movie’s central theme, together with profane and seamy language in the dialogue and the inclusion of rear-view nudity, suggest an adult audience.
Native Liverpudlian Jodie Comer plays 20-something Sarah who, as the picture opens, is nervously preparing for a job interview as a nurse’s aide. Viewers will intuit that, until now, this working-class woman’s life has not been marked by much purpose or direction.
Bright Sky’s administrator, Steve (Ian Hart), isn’t impressed with Sarah’s Level One Certificate, which places her only a notch above entry level in the U.K. But the determination with which she stands up to his bluntness convinces Steve to give the candidate a chance.
On her first evening on the job, while shadowing her new boss, Sarah demonstrates her natural ability to serve Bright Sky’s inhabitants. When Steve’s direct approach doesn’t compel Tony (Stephen Graham), a 47-year-old man with early-onset Alzheimer’s, to return home, Sarah intervenes.
She listens empathetically as Tony explains his repeated attempts to return to his deceased mother’s house: “I forgot me ma’s dead.” Establishing a quick rapport, Sarah coaxes Tony to come back to Bright Sky.
Her success foreshadows things to come. Despite the challenge of cleaning and dressing those in her charge, tasks for which she receives no thanks, Sarah makes personal connections with her patients, in turn receiving the recognition of her worth and dignity denied her at home by her belittling dad, Bob (Andrew Schofield), and dismissive mom, Gaynor (Lesley Sharp).
As Sarah forms a special bond with Tony, Graham and Comer, through their superb performances, establish a convincing alchemy between the two.
In April 2020, the local hospital, out of bed space, drops COVID-19 patients off at Bright Sky. Predictably, the lack of masks and personal protective equipment spells doom for many of its residents while some of the staff, Steve included, contract the virus.
Later, Sarah and Steve come into conflict over how best to care for Tony. Steve, concerned by understaffing at Bright Sky, changes Tony’s meds to keep him from straying. At this, Sarah rebels and adopts a radical alternative plan of action.
The film’s coda notes that British nursing homes received only 10% of the PPE needed to get through the pandemic’s first wave. The trash bag Sarah eventually uses as a poor substitute thus becomes a stark symbol of governmental failure — one that was not confined, moreover, to the U.K.
“Help” celebrates the heroism of underpaid and unsung workers like Sarah, albeit in a way that ultimately involves a distinctly partisan stance toward current British politics. It also reminds us that, because — for whatever reasons — such laborers did not receive the requisite backing of the authorities, many of those under their care died tragically unnecessary deaths.
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.