CAST: Timothy Spall, Phyllis Logan, Grace Calder, Celyn Jones, Brian Pettifer, Colin McCredie, Iain Robertson, Marnie Baxter, Garry Sweeney, Kevin Mains, Anne Kidd, Ciaron Kelly, Natalie Mitson, Ben Ewing
RUNNING TIME: 86 mins
BASICALLY…: An elderly man (Spall) travels across the country using only local buses…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Still trying to convince your elderly grandparents to return to the cinema? Simply take them to see The Last Bus, which could not be more in the middle-aged wheelhouse even if it were constructed entirely out of Werther’s Originals.
The elder generation is bound to get plenty out of director Gillies MacKinnon’s twee and gentle drama, which benefits from a strong lead performance and a simple yet sweet-natured story, but some of the more impatient viewers might find themselves becoming a little frustrated by its dilly-dallying, and a noticeable lack of focus.
In the film, we are introduced to an elderly chap named Tom (Timothy Spall), who’s spent most of his life living in John O’Groats, Scotland with his wife Mary (Phyllis Logan), after the two of them moved up from Land’s End, Cornwall after a close tragedy. In the present day, following Mary’s passing, Tom decides to venture back down to Land’s End, using his free bus pass to catch a series of local buses that take him all the way down the country. His suitcase firmly in hand, Tom’s journey soon begins attracting attention on social media, and soon his story becomes something of a national sensation, but all the while Tom plods along in what turns out to be a race against time, for plenty of reasons that become apparent as the movie goes along.
If Mike Leigh directed Pixar’s Up, by way of The Straight Story, it might look and feel a little bit like The Last Bus. The film has a scattershot sensibility to it that isn’t unlike Leigh’s filmmaking (especially seeing how Timothy Spall is also a regular actor in his films), but director Gillies MacKinnon often struggles to match the necessary pacing to make sense of its wandering focus. Working from an otherwise straightforward script by Joe Ainsworth, the director isn’t quite able to capture the flow from one episodic event to the next, with most of them feeling rather random instead of organic as it perhaps might be on the page. Timothy Spall’s Tom gets into all sorts of scraps on his odyssey, including being taken in by a caring family when he misses a bus, standing up against a racist bully, moving both a group of football hooligans and a hen party to stunned silence with a rendition of “Amazing Grace”, and even attending a Ukrainian birthday party, but the direction lacks a consistency that allows such outlandish events to neatly fall next to each other, and so most of them come across as oddly aimless as opposed to gaining the emotional reaction that is clearly intended. The same can also be said for its many flashbacks, which are worked into the film awkwardly and don’t offer a complete picture until much further down the line.
If the direction isn’t quite up to speed, the overall nature of the story itself is harmless enough to somewhat soften the blow. It’s an easy plot to follow, and it’s even easier to understand its appeal to wide-ish audiences; there’s something about watching old people defy the odds and capture the hearts of the nation, whether it’s the fictional Tom character in The Last Bus or the very real Captain Sir Tom Moore (whose biopic is said to currently be in the works), that makes for crowd-pleasing and emotional material, particularly when said elderly person seems like a pleasant enough fellow to spend an entire movie with. It’s not the most challenging material in the world, and again it perhaps won’t appeal to less patient members of the crowd, but it lends a hand to anyone willing to be walked through its simple and inoffensive narrative, even with its unfocused interludes.
Central to the film’s appeal is surely Timothy Spall’s lead turn, with the actor delivering his reliable gruffness under some heavy pensioner make-up, but you can still tell through his facial reactions and gentle tone of voice that he’s lived a long and illustrious life where he’s picked up a good bit of wisdom along the way. He delivers emotional scenes with aplomb, and even when the character is perhaps not at his most courteous you do sympathise with him because Spall allows you to understand his motivations as well as parts of his stubbornness, especially as you start to fill in the gaps via the film’s flashback sequences.
The film is certainly easy viewing, almost to a fault, which for its target audience is perhaps all that is needed. However, despite a decent story and a very good central performance, The Last Bus arrives late due to its inconsistent direction, which makes what could have been a much more focused movie come across as a random series of events revolving around an old man’s otherwise meaningful adventure.
SO, TO SUM UP…
The Last Bus contains a heart-warming story as well as an emotional lead turn by Timothy Spall, but the inconsistent and unfocused direction makes certain events feel far too random and aimless to land the proper responses that it’s aiming for.