The Last Bus (2021) *** – Seen at the Cinema

As we saw with Stillwater, great performances can rescue films. And there are two stunning performances on show in this alternative road trip, one from star Timothy Spall (Mr Turner, 2014) and another in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene from supporting actress Grace Calder. The story here is pretty slim, Tom, aged over 90, sets out on 800-mile pilgrimage by bus from John O’Groats at the very top of Scotland to Land’s End at the very south of England. The trip’s purpose is concealed until the climax but hardy cinemagoers will easily guess it. He has various encounters along the way. That’s it, pretty much.

Most films about the old have redeeming features, a charming character and if grouchy with a last chance at redemption, and if played by a star generally bring with their performance a whole parcel of screen memories that have an audience rooting for them. Tom ain’t like that. He’s old the way really old people are old. He’s not an attractive sight. His bottom lip sticks out most of the time like an aged trout. He shuffles along, in battered old clothes clutching a battered old suitcase. Most of the time he’s out of his depth, occasionally rescued by passersby, occasionally not.  

The most you can say about him is he has grit, standing up to a drunk abusing a Muslim, fixing a broken-down bus, offering a shoulder to cry on to a weeping teenager. In another time, in another place, such characteristics would have propelled a story. Here, they are mere makeweights. He’s so self-effacing he’s easy to ignore.  

Scottish director Gillies Mackinnon (Whisky Galore, 2016) takes the bold decision not to make him overly sympathetic. Scenes that would have been played for all they were worth in any other film almost pass without comment, just minor ingredients in a larger tapestry. The most Tom achieves is retaining dignity at a time when body and mind are starting to betray him.

That this is just the smallest of small pictures is amply demonstrated when, trapped between a bunch of rowdy boys enjoying rowdy banter with a hen party, he starts singing “Amazing Grace.” Tom doesn’t have an amazing voice. He doesn’t even seem to recognise that he gradually attracts an audience. He is in a world of his own. And the director lets him stay there.

I was so convinced by Timothy Spall’s performance that I hoped they had used a stunt double to film a scene when he has to gingerly negotiate a path down rugged rocks. I had not realised that Spall is only 64 and not close to the aged specimen I had been watching. Spall has that quiet genius of the great actors even though rarely given a leading role and if you recognise him at all, unless you are an arthouse devotee, it will be from The Last Samurai (2003) or Vanilla Sky (1999).  

What of Grace Calder? Occasionally I deliver lectures on film and in one of these I use the final scene of Greta Garbo in Queen Christina (1933) to demonstrate the power of female close-ups, how women far more than men are capable of a greater range expression, showing a shifting series of emotions through their eyes. And I saw that same astonishing quality in Grace Calder (Love Sarah, 2020). She appears as the lover of an arrogant male who taunts Tom in a B&B. As she reins her lover in, her eyes rapidly change in a matter of seconds to conveying a depth of different emotions.  None of the other actors, who are all fleeting two-dimensional cameos, come anywhere close in a part that was not a part until she made it so memorable.

Most critics have been pretty sniffy about The Last Bus and you can see why. Television writer Joe Ainsworth making his movie debut tries too hard for diversity, the social media trope sticks out like a sore thumb, affords overmuch footage of glorious Scottish landscape to recompense Creative Scotland for its financial input, and never quite resolves the question of how a 90-year-old guy who can hardly manage a bus pass manages to work out a convoluted route in at least a dozen local buses to retrace a route he took 70 years before.

But it is all held together by a stunning performance by Spall.