It sounds like it’s based on actual events and, while The Last Bus doesn’t claim to be inspired by real life, it bears more than a passing resemblance to a bus trip taken by retired head teacher Richard Elloway in 2008. He travelled from Land’s End to John O’Groats in just over seven and a half days using his free bus pass to cover the fare. Tom, the man at the centre of The Last Bus, undertakes the journey in the opposite direction and does it for very personal reasons.
Recently widowed and living in John O’Groats, Tom (Timothy Spall) sets out with his bus pass and a small 1950s style suitcase to return to his former Cornish home. He has a job to do when he gets there, but the journey turns out to be one that revives personal memories and means rubbing shoulders with many different people, as well as experiencing a country that has changed beyond his recognition. And, unbeknown to him, he becomes something of a social media celebrity along the way.
With a narrative that’s structured around Tom’s various encounters – good and bad – director Gillies MacKinnon makes extensive use of what is a familiar trope. The majority of the strangers are kind, from the couple who find him collapsed on a pavement and offer him a bed for the night to the Eastern European immigrant workers who give him a lift and insist he attends a family party. But they’re balanced by some less warm hearted individuals, including the drunk who abuses a Muslim woman and an officious English bus driver who, discovering Tom has a Scottish bus pass, leaves him stranded at the road side in the middle of nowhere.
Despite those attempts to add some grit to proceedings, there’s always a gentle rosy glow surrounding Tom’s travels. It’s through his memories that we find the film’s emotional core – why he and his wife moved from Cornwall to the most northern point of the UK, the reasons for some of his stop-offs and a piece of news that isn’t what it seems – so that when he arrives in Land’s End to carry out his plan, there’s the inevitable lump in the throat. And, refreshingly, the fact that he becomes a social media star along the way comes almost as an afterthought, raising its head only towards the end.
With a class act like Spall in the lead, the film is very much anchored by his performance. Despite being some twenty years younger than his character, he gives a prosthetic-free performance, relying on a stooped posture and, dare we say it, good old fashioned acting to win our hearts and prompt that essential mist in front of our eyes. But the film belongs so much to him and his character that everybody else has a few moments on screen only to fade into oblivion as soon as they’re gone. It’s a missed opportunity for more colour and depth, but we’re still more than happy to go along with Spall for the ride.
Drama | Cert: 12A | Cinema | 27 August 2021 | Dir. Gillies MacKinnon | Timothy Spall, Phyllis Logan, Brian Pettifer, Celyn Jones, Natalie Mitson, Ben Ewing.