With “The Last Bus” Scottish director, writer, and accomplished painter Gillies MacKinnon gives us a warm-hearted road-trip movie that happens to be right up my alley. Driven by an outstanding lead performance from screen vet Timothy Spall, “The Last Bus” tells a simple and straightforward story. But that’s exactly what this tender and bittersweet drama needs to be.
Written by Joe Ainsworth, the story centers on an elderly man named Tom Harper (Spall) and most of what we learn about him is fed to us throughout his journey. What journey, you ask? The 838 mile trip from John O’Groats on the U.K.’s northeastern tip to Lands End, the mainland’s most southern point. And why is he making such a trip? Because of a pledge he made to his late wife Mary.
“The Last Bus” is several things, but above all it’s a moving meditation on life, love, and the commitments we make to those closest to us. It’s also a beautiful reminder of the blessing of memories. Tom’s journey is intercut with well handled flashbacks to key moments with Mary – highs and lows that defined their loving marriage. They’re framed as memories brought to Tom’s mind during different stops on his meticulously planned pilgrimage.
With his free bus pass in hand, Tom moves from town to town, stopping at diners and B&Bs that he and Mary visited in their youth. Along the way he encounters an eclectic blend of strangers, often relying on their kindness to keep him going, especially as the arduous journey begins to take its toll. Yet he pushes on, determined to reach his destination. “I just want to keep my promise.”
It turns out the more we learn about Tom and Mary’s backstory the more predictable the movie becomes. With each stop things become more obvious and the conclusion, though undeniably sweet, seems like an inevitability. There’s also a strange addition to the story as word of Tom’s travels gets around. He unknowingly becomes a social media sensation with radio stations broadcasting his progress as reported by people who catch a glimpse of him on the road. It’s an amusing and well-meaning twist, but one that feels tacked on and that doesn’t really lead anywhere.
Recently there have been several movies about widowers reckoning with grief and/or mortality. Some have taken serious looks at those themes while others have been more whimsical. “The Last Bus” falls somewhere in between. It certainly has the whimsy, but it also has its serious moments too. And much like all these movies, it has a big heart that finds its way into every scene. And even though you know where things are going, you’ll still want to stay on the bus and see it through till the end. Just like Tom. “The Last Bus” is now available on VOD.