An elderly man takes his wife’s ashes from Scotland to Cornwall, by bus.
Tom Harper, the old man at the centre of The Last Bus, is one of those people who says little while conveying a lot. Part-way through his long journey from John O’Groats to Land’s End he’s staying overnight in a scruffy hotel, and sees a crucifix above him on the wall of his bedroom. While Jesus himself pleaded with his father as he was dying, “why hast thou forsaken me?” Tom, who has endured much personal pain and suffering himself, simply looks at the figure on the cross and utters a single wry, “alright?”
The Last Bus, a weepie which as well as starring superlative actor and National Treasure Timothy Spall includes many, many bus journeys, should have been an ideal watch for me. I love public transport and I cry at the drop of a genuine 1950s trilby hat.
I love public transport partly because I didn’t drive for years and had to love it, and partly for that exquisite tension between admiring the view as we trundled between local villages, me peering over high flint walls into rich people’s gardens, and the sheer terror of missing my stop as I tried to wrangle shopping and a baby to the door while we whizzed round a corner.
Driving lessons left me whistful for those days, as I sat behind a bus at a stop until it moved and my instructor said ‘Sarah, if you don’t go round it you might as well be on it!” and I thought to myself yes I’d much prefer that actually. All human life, much of it weird, and, in far-flung corners of Britain some animal life too can be found on our buses, and indeed maybe to some people who once shared a bus with me I was the weirdo.
Sadly despite a brief 86-minute runtime The Last Bus still drags in places, and, obligatory social media mentions aside, it often feels like a BBC drama ordered in the 1990s by benevolent middle class programme commissioners. Luckily there are moments and strands that work much better than some of the clunky interactions between Tom and people he meets along the way.
The film moves from open moorland with an old, hut-like bus stop replete with honestly box fruit and veg to inner-city double deckers and local minibuses, with Tom (Spall) always immaculate in shirt, tie, jacket and overcoat, holding his small case to his heart. It was hard to admire the view out of his window though, as I was constantly worried he’d miss his next connection.
Tom is taking his wife’s ashes from their home of decades in Scotland to their original home in Cornwall. It’s the reverse of the journey they took in 1952, with early scenes showing young Tom (Ben Ewing) and his beautiful, mustard coat-wearing wife Mary (Natalie Mitson) going north (by bus) to escape some as-yet-unexplained horror that has occurred.
They move into a little cottage, and these flashbacks, with young Tom and young Mary and her glorious coat, and later an elderly Mary (Phyllis Logan) in a mustard scarf, dot the film — including a more recent trip to the hospital for a cancer diagnosis where Mary asks, desperate, about treatments and time left. Now Mary is dead and it is up to Tom to take her home, a place she refused to countenance returning to until it was too late.
The Last Bus may trundle through 838 miles but this is a small-scale drama that avoids the bigger picture, the headline faultlines of this country, to focus on everyone as individuals. While big tragedies are revealed they are deeply personal, and a disaster can simply be an annotated map snatched away by the wind. (Watching Tom work out his bus journey at the start is rather a delight. It’s planned with military precision, and is almost certainly far harder than their original 1952 journey.)
Along the way Old Tom meets citizens of 21st century Britain, though they are often heavily-drawn stereotypes, their interactions too on the nose as he fights racism, helps a young man with girlfriend troubles and fixes a broken-down bus. (I’ll tell you now that no horrible teens shout “Bus wanker!” at him out of a yellow Fiat Cinquecento.) Little does Tom know that his interactions are being photographed and filmed and posted on social media.
One of the briefest connections works best: Tom, unable to offer his bloodied cotton handkerchief to a weeping young woman sitting next to him on the bus, silently puts his arm round her and she sobs on his shoulder. Tom’s tragedies are unveiled with some delicacy, and though we are misled at times en route, in a rather manipulative movie this actually doesn’t feel manipulative. Likewise, those social media aspects, which are occasional and muted, do eventually come into their own.
Spall is excellent as a man eventually propelling himself forward on will alone, moving with his determined, bow-legged gait, his body practically breaking down as he endures his journey. Tom is more fleshed out than he initially appears. Positioned as both embodying the imagined strengths of Old Britain (self-reliance, standing up for what is right, family) while also possessing stereotype “old person” traits (he becomes crotchety to the point of rudeness), it turns out the people he meets have the same strengths, and he’s crotchety and rude for very good reasons.
Despite the warm-hearted people he encounters and the help he receives, it’s something of a dangerous journey, and by the end Tom seems to be half man, half hospital dressing, held together by steristrips and scabs.
I actually like The Last Bus more in retrospect, the well-meaning chance meetings having lost their cringe-factor in the 48 hours since I watched it. The moving stories behind them, of a couple and their life together and the quiet tragedies endured, and families he would never normally meet welcoming him into their lives, loom larger.
Often films like this are aimed at an older audience, though my 9-year-old wandered in toward the end of my screener and was instantly engaged. He asked lots of questions, including the inevitable “I wonder if he ever needed a wee on the bus?”, a question Tom would have dealt with with quiet good humour, I think, despite his pain.
Read my article on the twists and ending, The Last Bus: The Terminus Approaches.
Watch the trailer now: