I’d say The Last Bus is gentle to the point of inertia, but this is a movie about a man on the move, albeit very slowly. And yet…
Timothy Spall (Mrs Lowry & Son) has been aged up — convincingly alarmingly — to play Tom, a very elderly gent on a mission to return the ashes of his recently deceased wife, Mary (Phyllis Logan [Downton Abbey] in recent flashbacks), to Land’s End, Cornwall, in southwestern England, from their home at the very other end of Great Britain, the village of John O’Groats at the northeastern tip of mainland Scotland. For a reason that is never explained except that there wouldn’t be much of a story otherwise, Tom has chosen to make this legendary 800-mile-plus journey via a daisy chain of local buses.
Screenwriter Joe Ainsworth, a TV writer making his feature debut, has therefore baked the British twee right into this slight travelogue through modern Britain… and through one old man’s memories. For we also get longer-ago flashbacks, to Tom and Mary in their early married life in the 1950s, that is far too slow to reveal the mystery of the something terrible that happened that made her want to run away from Cornwall and never return. The younger version of the couple is played by Ben Ewing and Natalie Mitson, and they don’t have much to do but look pretty and sad.
It’s to the credit of Spall and director Gillies MacKinnon (Whisky Galore!) that this modest road-trip film mostly avoids overt schmaltz in favor of mild sentimentality. The sheep on the bus in the Highlands are noted with barely a chuckle by good-natured Tom; and, frankly, the young woman (Maryam Hamidi) in the niqab on the bus somewhere around Manchester isn’t too happy at all when Tom tries to defend her from the abusive attentions of a drunken white man (Kevin Mains). But in downplaying the mawkishness, too much genuine emotion has, alas, been left by the roadside.
Spall’s performance is lovely, his Tom a kindly soul, and one with no use for silly distractions. His scoffing at the wannabe-feel-good ending of the movie is perhaps the moment with the greatest impact here.