Ahh the night bus – a form of transport notoriously familiar to any Londoner out after-hours. We’ve all enjoyed / endured it at some point, and some do so regularly to get home, to get to work or to the next party. Perhaps no other time or place in our city provides that extraordinary combination of drunk people and workers, lunatics and culture lovers, snogging couples and the bewildered. Those night bus CCTV cameras have seen it all – the rows, the laughter, the vomit, the tears – in other words, the perfect setting for this beautifully constructed new film written and directed by Simon Baker taking the viewer for a drive through the streets of East London and the lives of the various people who board.
Using guided improvisation, this film draws you into the problems of almost all the people on the bus, flipping between the upper and lower decks, and occasionally overlaying stories to give the sense of the conversations happening simultaneously. There’s the teenage boys playing their music, the girls discussing their father’s ill-health, the weary male co-workers complaining about their office, a man slating his wife’s friends after a night at the cinema, the divorcee desperate to see his children and a collection of the weird, wonderful and lonely as they embark on their journey. One of the key achievements of this film is feeling quickly drawn into all their lives and even though you may only see these people for a few minutes, they all feel completely rounded and entirely natural.
It is a comedy that delivers some great laugh out loud moments and more than a few wry smiles, but as with the best humour, it is tinged with poignancy that never feels overblown or unlikely, just people silently suffering in a public space. Cleverly Baker doesn’t feel the need to have dramatic things happen to guide the story – Keanu Reeves doesn’t unearth any bus-bombs needing to stay above 50 mph, which is a big relief given the traffic in London most days doesn’t allow you to move above 50 miles a week – it just cleverly allows all the lives taking place in the double-decker to be the focus. It’s small and contained and very nicely accomplished.
Eventually the driver himself gets a bit of a starring role, fending off angry and lost people in a great montage sequence ending brilliantly with one drunk lad wanting to chat about the world while the increasingly exasperated driver tries to leave the bus stop. It’s not only the story that’s impressive, the music, a brassy jazz score, is reminiscent of the incidental music in Alfie and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which gives this film a great London connection. You may never have imagined a bus was pretty but the external cinematography by Dominic Bartels has some lovely shots of the rain soaked bus and road ahead with coloured lights of the passing streets reflected in the windows and puddles. The colours here too reminded me a little of the bold block shades used by Danny Boyle in Trance, another movie in which we see a very different presentation of London.
Night Bus received its world premiere at the London Film Festival and the director talked modestly about the process of constructing this really engaging and enjoyable film. The decision to include a couple of instances where we loop back in time and rehear part of a conversation before focusing on someone else is a good one, and apparently a previous edit took out more of these for looking a bit too clever. There’s also one example of internal monologue towards the end which some may think out of kilter with the tone of the rest, but I think it helped to begin the process of conclusion. You don’t see the bus journey end; it just goes on perpetually, which if you’ve ever been on a night bus feels pretty realistic! It has a limited cinema release but if there’s a chance to catch it either now or on DVD then you really should. Films at the festival can be hit and miss but Night Bus has certainly set the standard for the rest of the week. And no doubt a lot of people were still discussing its merits on the bus home.
Sadly the two other performances of Night Bus are sold out but look out for potential showings in London cinemas and on DVD. Tickets are still available for other films in the Festival and to explore the programme, visit the website.