Producers: Solon Papadopoulos and Ray Boulter Director: Gillies Mackinnon Screenplay: Joe Ainsworth Cast: Timothy Spall, Phyllis Logan, Natalie Mitson, Ben Ewing, Patricia Panther, J.S. Duffy and Saskia Ashdown Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Even Timothy Spall’s strenuous efforts can’t rescue Gillies Mackinnon’s mawkish drama about an elderly man’s mission to travel the length of the British Isles—from northernmost Scotland to Land’s End in southwestern Cornwall—to fulfill a promise made to his wife. Adding a modern social-media twist to the episodic odyssey only exacerbates the sappiness Spall can’t entirely mitigate.
The film juxtaposes the contemporary sequences of elderly Spall’s Tom and his wife Mary (Phyllis Logan) in their rustic home, with a lovingly cared-for garden, with flashbacks of their moving into it back in 1952 (played as young marrieds by Ben Ewing and Natalia Mitson). The reasons for both journeys—the young couple’s from England to the north, and decrepit Tom’s return via bus many decades later—are coyly kept secret until far into the film, but when revealed they provide very little surprise.
The bulk of the narrative consists of the interactions Tom has along the way. A few are unpleasant—a confrontation with a drunken drunk who’s harassing a Muslim woman, another with an officious conductor who won’t accept Tom’s expired bud pass, a near-disaster when the suitcase Tom is obsessively guarding is briefly stolen—but most show acts of kindness, both his and other people’s toward him.
Tom is, you see, an exceptionally considerate person. He intervenes not only to defend that Muslim woman, but to try to dissuade a runaway and to comfort a jilted young girl. He also diffuses a potential ruckus between rival soccer fans by singing a hymn. A retired engineer, he jumps into action when one of the buses he’s taking breaks down.
But he’s clearly a man on a mission, one inextricably connected with his deep love for his wife. At one of the small hotels he stays at, he frets over not being able to stay in the room he and Mary shared during their trip northward. And he will let no obstacle stand in the way of completing it, even as his strength and stamina ebb.
Fortunately he finds helpful allies when he needs them. In one instance a couple find Tom in distress on the street and take him back to their apartment, offering him a room for the night and the embrace of themselves and their daughter. In another, some Ukrainian workers insist that he come home with them for a party being thrown for one of their family members.
It’s all very nice, with the bumps in the road never serious enough to be genuinely threatening, and the good will Tom encounters along the way more than compensating for them. Throughout the trip Spall brings a craggy dignity to the piece, his muted grumblings and shy smiles alternating with signs of Tom’s worsening physical limitations. Logan matches him agreeably in their relatively few scenes together, and while the flashback sequences with Mitson and Ewing have the stilted quality of old photos, they show a determined effort to recreate the period on a limited budget. The supporting players are all okay in their brief turns.
The same description applies to the work of the technical team, which is decent but unremarkable. Andy Harris’ production design passes muster, and though George Cameron Geddes’ cinematography has a rather raw look and feel, it allows the locations to come through effectively. Anne Sapel’s editing is a mite stop-and-start, like the bus rides themselves, and Nick Lloyd Webber’s score can go as saccharine as Joe Ainsworth’s script.
The movie’s essential niceness may be appealing enough for some, but only Spall lifts “The Last Bus” from a route marked by benign mediocrity.