Gentle is the most fitting word to describe the aura of “The Last Bus,” Gillies MacKinnon’s placid travelogue of a movie about an ailing Englishman on a heartrending mission. Sadly, the filmmaker’s road trip errs on the side of excessive gentleness. For a tender movie that follows an old man on a long and demanding multi-bus excursion to honor his late wife’s wishes, the placid affair has curiously little emotional range, and an even narrower sense of stakes.
Playing the retired engineer Tom, the British gentleman in question, a believably aged Timothy Spall gives the character his all, infusing him with a palpable sense of countryside dignity, but perhaps leaning a bit heavily on an exaggeratedly old speech pattern mostly made up of breathy mumblings. Respectably clad and holding onto his deceased wife Mary’s ashes for dear life, Tom leaves his John o’ Groats home — a location on Scotland’s northernmost point — and heads to Land’s End in the southwest England (a nearly 850-mile journey, according to Google Maps), using nothing but buses.
Through a number of pretty-ish but painfully unimaginative and overtly costume-y flashbacks to the 1950s, we get to understand that the young Mary and Tom (played by Natalie Mitson and Ben Ewing, respectively) left their Land’s End home when an unspeakable family tragedy struck. Wanting to get as geographically far away as possible from their painful memories, the couple headed to Scotland, leaving their aching reality behind. Now, it’s up to Tom to recreate that epic journey in reverse and take Mary to her final resting place, armed with nothing other than maps and a bus pass that might have expired.
All things considered, “The Last Bus” feels awfully close to a live-action “Up,” but without the Pixar animated feature’s grand romanticism that tugs at one’s heartstrings. Indeed, there won’t be any need for tissues here, even as Tom gets haunted by remembrances ancient and recent, with Phyllis Logan sweetly portraying Mary in her later years. Still, MacKinnon and screenwriter Joe Ainsworth manage to unearth some intrigue during Tom’s trip through engaging but shallow glimpses into the diverse fabric of modern-day UK. In what could be the most memorable of them all, the old man bravely confronts a racist drunk who harasses a niqab-wearing Muslim woman. In other sequences, we shadow him as he befriends a lively Ukrainian group who invites him to a boozy party with platters of pierogi and stays at the same exact lodges he and his wife once did. (It feels like a miracle that some of those places still exist and that he could even locate them.) In a less successful scene that aims to critique a certain bureaucratic mindset, a mean conductor kicks him out of the bus due to his invalid ticket. Passengers stand up for him to no avail.
To its credit, “The Last Bus” avoids trivializing old age, a common pitfall for many well-meaning films led by elderly protagonists. In that regard, Spall’s Tom feels respectable, gracious and capable, with believable vulnerabilities that are never portrayed preciously for cheap laughs. It’s too bad that MacKinnon and Ainsworth don’t lean into this integrity further, and instead give us a rather whimsical ending that suggests Tom has become a social media sensation of his own right — a turn that feels like a “Forrest Gump”-level stretch, to put it mildly.
Elsewhere, “The Last Bus” crawls when it needs to be speeding, making you wish for a little bit of a climb in its visceral landscape. But it all feels like a flat road of sentimental boredom, observed through drab, one-note cinematography. There is no doubt that the film has its heart in the right place, but most of the time, that’s just not enough.