The Last Bus Home (1997)

D: Johnny Gogan
S: Annie Ryan, Brian F. O'Byrne

Much-vaunted ultra low budget Irish feature, a sort of indigenous rejoinder to Alan Parker's adaptation of The Commitments. It charts the short, turbulent life of a Dublin punk band in 1979, formed the same day a Papal visit by Pope John Paul II holds the rest of the nation entranced in a haze of old-fashioned values (a day which also, historically, marked a resurgence of conservatism for some years). An angry, rebellious group of youths express their disenchantment through this unconventional music, barely realising their individual personal motivations. As they achieve moderate success they begin to learn more about themselves, and it tears them apart.

There are some good scenes in this film, particularly the surrealistic opening where punkette Annie Ryan wanders around the eerie, empty spaces of suburban Dublin while her family and most of her neighbours attend Mass in the Phoenix Park, and the clever climax where a funeral is intercut with the takeoff of an Aer Lingus jet, neither of which turns out to be what they seem to represent. It is authentically grungy, dramatically quite satisfying, and relatively coherent as a vision of Irish society from the fringes. Writer/Director Johnny Gogan does a good job with obviously limited resources, and the film makes a virtue of the confined, poorly-lit spaces where most of the action takes place.

The main problems are in the performances, which tend towards the amateur. While this is inevitable, and indeed possibly appropriate, there is something irritating about Ryan's wild-eyed determination and Brian F. O'Byrne's relentless sulking, especially when there is not a lot of variety to their characterisations until the well-judged coda where the characters meet over a decade later. The film derives some strength from the fact that the actors perform the music themselves (as in The Commitments). This gives the concert scenes a ring of authenticity (further enhanced by featuring members of Dublin's actual, still existing punk scene in the crowds), despite the generic 'band struggling to get started' clichés which surface from time to time (a cynical record company exec., finding an unusual venue to play in, semi-comic 'disasters' during performances; things which happen, granted, but overly familiar from films of this type).

The film is also not quite forceful enough in its treatment of the issue of homosexuality which informs one of its sub-plots. Without wanting to spoil the film for potential viewers, one of the band's fate is partly determined by his sexuality. Despite the suggestion early on that homophobic thugs roam the streets along with the rest of the alternative lifestyle characters who are part of the scene, the film lets itself off the hook by refusing to take this to its logical conclusion. The same applies elsewhere in the story. Gogan seems unwilling to fully explore the darker side of his characters and the setting, though he does not deny them entirely. There are various suggestions of a bleaker underworld, and there are some scenes of confrontation and conflict, but there is never a sense that the script has plumbed the depths of what is going on.

The film does locate its events within a particular moral, social, and economic climate which defines how the characters live, and it is notable as a cynical evocation of that moment in recent Irish history. There is not quite enough anger though, especially for a film set in the punk scene. It harbours a certain affection for traditionalism embodied in the regard shown for the character of Ryan's grandmother, and, in fact, by the film's end, punk is itself shown to be a form of hypocritical, futile rebellion masking a neo-conservative desire for success. This is appropriate. It is, after all, a 1990s film which looks back at that era from the vantage point of the so-called 'Celtic Tiger' economy where politics are in decline, money seems to be everywhere, and Irish society prides itself on being more open and progressive. Gogan's vision of the punk scene in 1979 can be read as a satire of Irish society on the whole, and there are clever and subtle jabs at those who attempt to criticise or deny the effects of a culture which ultimately informs everything that they do, especially when they try to reject it.

The Last Bus Home is certainly an interesting film for an Irish audience. There is much to think about both in the film itself and in terms of the issues it raises. It is not the crowd-pleaser that Parker's film was, but it is worthwhile as a product of the recent renaissance in filmmaking in Ireland which The Commitments marked part of the beginning of. It is not as polished and accomplished as it might have been, but then, as noted, this does match the setting, and thus allows Gogan to get away with a certain amount of amateurism. On the whole, it is good to see this type of film emerging, as, along with the likes of How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate, November Afternoon, and even I Went Down, it contributes to a climate of edgier, riskier pictures of Irish culture in the late twentieth century. It won't appeal to everyone, mind, and is unlikely to make it very far beyond these shores (though it won Best Film at the British and Irish Film Festival in Cherbourg), but it is worth a look.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.