Writer: Bren Gosling
Director: Nicky Allpress
One of the most iconic photographs of the 1980s is of Princess Diana shaking hands with an AIDS patient in the new HIV/AIDS ward in London Middlesex Hospital. To underline the fact that one couldn’t catch the virus from touching, Diana dispensed with her gloves and touched the patients as well as shaking hands with the staff on the ward. This image helped dispel the many myths and misinformation that had formed around the disease. Some say that the photograph was more powerful than the health information disseminated by the Government.
Nicky Allpress’s new film, based on the play by Bren Gosling, is centred on this extraordinary moment in history, and we meet three characters whose lives are changed by Diana’s visit, although it must be said that Moment of Grace is not a hagiography of the Princess. Instead we meet Jude, a nurse on the ward, who tells her flatmates that she works in A&E because of the stigma attached to AIDS, Andrew a patient on the ward and Donnie, a fireman who watches Diana on the 6 0’ Clock news.
During this 60-minute film, which was shot on an iPhone through lockdown, we are told some chilling stories about this day. Perhaps the most chilling is that some patients in the AIDS ward asked to be moved for Diana’s visit, as they didn’t want their photographs to be in the media, a source of shame for their family and friends. In wondering what stories to tell the Princess, Jude offers a few to the viewer, a nice device for this smart looking film. Andrew too worries about meeting Diana, and tells the story of how he found out that he was HIV positive. It takes a while to see how Donnie fits in to the overall picture, except that he has an estranged son.
The editing in this film is flawless, and it doesn’t matter that the three characters are talking to camera with a white nothingness behind them. White is the appropriate colour here; it’s the colour of hospital corridors and of camera flashes. It also allows the film to feel that it’s set in 1987: too many glimpses of the actors’ homes would fill the screen with modern day anachronisms. When Allpress does use other footage, like that of Hackney Marshes, it comes as a surprise, and seems seeped in memory.
As Jude, Lucy Walker-Evans is excellent in bringing her character – optimistic but permanently damaged from what she has seen – to life. Luke Dayhill gives a sensitive performance as Andrew, the patient who seems to have accepted his fate, although his eyes are consistently teary. As the Cockney fireman, Andrew Paul brings brio and likeability to a character who is only just becoming aware of his prejudices. Even though the actors perform from different houses, there is a sense of unity here, helped again by the impressive editing.
Diana’s handshake didn’t heal the men she met, but it certainly changed the way society viewed those living with HIV/AIDS. In our current pandemic, the handshake is full of danger rather than a symbol of sympathy. However, what is apparent as we negotiate a new looming series of lockdowns is the human need to be touched. A Moment of Grace is a beautiful film, full of both redemption and suffering.
Runs here until 9 August 2020