The Last Bus

 

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Timothy Spall gives real distinction to a British drama about a widower taking a free bus ride from John O’Groats to Land’s End.

 
Last Bus, The

Timothy Spall (centre) and fellow passengers

 

This film comes as a pleasant surprise. All too often these days one finds many established British actors and actresses of real ability turning up in feeble films unworthy of their talents. It would have been quite possible that The Last Bus starring Timothy Spall would fall into that category and it has to be acknowledged that Joe Ainsworth’s screenplay is one that aims to please an older audience ready to embrace a tale that can seem a bit far-fetched. But, if you accept The Last Bus for what it is, then you will find that it stands as a superior example of the genre.

 

Spall, taking on the role of a character much older than his own age, plays Tom Harper, a man who, despite coming from Cornwall, has lived most of his life in Scotland. His arrival there in 1952 with his wife, Mary, is shown early in the film alongside shots of the couple in old age, but almost at once Mary dies and it is established that the widower, regardless of his age and despite health problems, is determined to revisit that journey in reverse. Not only will he travel from John O’Groats to Land’s End, but he will do so using the same method as before, that is to say that he will travel in a series of local buses. Even the overnight stops will echo the past as we realise to the full when, at an old B&B that has survived, he seeks to stay in the very same room as before. The only modern touch in all this lies in the fact that his story becomes known when shots of him en route go viral, thus ensuring him followers ready to welcome him at journey’s end.

 

The story may be unlikely, but it has human appeal thanks to Spall and to the skills of his director, Gillies MacKinnon. Now working mainly for television MacKinnon has had a career in cinema which has rather faded away (his best work was way back when he made such films as the 1997 Redemption). But, as this film shows, he has happily not lost his skills for he gives The Last Bus a sense of flow despite the material being episodic by nature and he adroitly bring out the passing landscapes without ever overdoing it. A further gain comes from the well-judged unobtrusive music score by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s son, Nick. As the film follows Tom south, he becomes the only figure who is a constant presence thus making it inevitable that those he encounters in passing - be they people who help him or others who do not - are decidedly subsidiary. Flashbacks fill in the story of Tom and Mary with Ben Ewing and Natalie Mitson both well cast in the scenes from the 1950s and there are also limited scenes from the couple’s later years together. It’s a shame that Phyllis Logan, a fine actress, is seen so briefly as the elderly Mary, but apt enough given the storyline.

 

What all this means is that The Last Bus concentrates so much on old Tom that it could have been deliberately created as a showcase work for the actor playing the part. Yet the crucial fact about the way Spall treats this role is his highly creditable refusal to give a showcase performance. Instead, he brings to the character his depth of experience as an actor, something that enables him to reject all show and to live the part fully on screen. Only in the last few minutes when it is too late to matter much does the writing push towards manipulation and sentimentality. The realism that Spall finds in the role makes this an outstanding achievement on his part. The Last Bus should certainly be embraced by the audiences for whom it was made, but it also deserves attention from anyone who admires great acting.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Timothy Spall, Phyllis Logan, Natalie Mitson, Ben Ewing, Celyn Jones, Grace Calder, Brian Pettifer, Colin McCredie, Garry Sweeney, Kevin Mains, Iain Robertson, Marnie Baxter, Saskia Ashdown.

 

Dir Gillies MacKinnon, Pro Sol Papadopoulos and Rory Boulter, Screenplay Joe Ainsworth, Ph George Cameron Geddes, Pro Des Andy Harris, Ed Anne Sopel, Music Nick Lloyd Webber, Costumes Gill Horn.

 

Hurricane Films/Head Gear Films/Kreo Films/Metrol Technology/Quickfire/Creative Scotland/LipSync Productions/Magnetic Productions/Celsius Entertainment-Parkland Entertainment.
86 mins. UK/United Arab Emirates. 2021. Rel: 27 August 2021. Cert. 12A.