No man is an island, entire of itself… For whom the bus tolls? It tolls for thee.
Signifying its mortal intentions with a definitive title, The Last Bus is a road movie that travels at the rate and with the weight of senescence. Timothy Spall stars as Tom Harper, an ailing pensioner who undertakes a journey through the past that spans the length of Britain, travelling from his home in John O’ Groats to Land’s End. His poignant goal revolves around a recent diagnosis with terminal cancer, and the unexpected death of his wife Mary. Having passed away before they were ready to leave, Tom is fortified to complete it for her.
The camera is rarely off Spall, who acts 20-years beyond his own 64 for the role. Characterful, humble, and pained, his fragile presence and laboured mannerisms illustrate Tom’s struggle against infirmity, which in turn defines the character’s struggle to reach a telos. The narrative keeps its cards close to its chest, though much of the emotional context can be inferred before the reveals come. They gradually do so in unchronological flashbacks—an elaborate but unburdensome structural device—triggered by Tom’s pilgrimage. We see his budding romance with Mary, and that while resident in Land’s End, their child died as an infant. Deeply traumatised, Mary just wants to get as far away as possible, hence how the couple came to live their lives in John O’ Groats.
These frequently solitary moments are echoed by the accompaniment of solitary string notes, occasionally segued with samples of British folk. Nick Lloyd Webber’s musical cues burnish a plethora of arrestingly photographed British landscapes, particularly those of the Highlands. However, this strength comes with a catch. Combined with some sedate pacing, the film often scans as a dull travelogue. Lots of looking out of a bus window as Scottish mountains give way to North West high streets give way to Somerset fields give way to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s not quite Speed.
Along the way Tom has a series of encounters with other bus passengers, including sticking up for a Muslim woman who is getting abused for wearing a burqa, engaging with a bystander in a rendition of a personally significant carol, and having a brush with a desperate pauper who steals his suitcase. None of them are especially memorable, but then again encounters on buses rarely are, and director Gillies MacKinnon does opt for naturalism. Just as the picture-book collection of scenic shots captures the image of Britain, these scenes show a cross-section of British people on public transport, and help elucidate Tom’s own kind-hearted nature.
There’s one more thread to mention. Perhaps inspired by real-life viral pensioner Captain Tom Moore, fictional stretcher-bearer Tom Harper gets his own hashtag. His bus-travel gradually attracts social media attention from curious onlookers, so when he disembarks from “the last bus” to complete his journey, he is greeted by a crowd of supportive well-wishers. It’s a less sentimental scene than it might have been (which is good). And with that, 874-miles in 86-minutes come to a close.
The Last Bus gets by as a modest tale about ageing, though it’s not the decisive heart-tugger it wants to be. What it didn’t want to be was a great advert for post-COVID staycations. Alas, such is the way when art leaves the artist’s coop.
Words by Alex Crisp
The Last Bus is now in cinemas.
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