Review of Edgar Wright’s ‘Last Night in Soho’
Every once in a while, a movie captures that magic feeling of being swept away. Last Night in Soho, the wild new film from writer-director Edgar Wright and co-writer Kristy Wilson-Cairns (1917) did just that for me. This is my kind of psychological-horror-thriller and with the exception of one sequence that went a bit too “slasher” for my tastes, I had a blast watching it. I’ll admit that, while also acknowledging more people will probably not enjoy this, than will. But for those who do, I feel confident they will share my enthusiasm.
Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie, JoJo Rabbit, 2019) opens the film by expressively dancing to Peter & Gordon’s “A World Without Love” while sporting a self-designed dress made of perfectly creased newspaper. Her room is filled with 1960s colors and memorabilia and we soon learn she’s an orphan raised by her grandmother (Rita Tushingham, A Taste of Honey, 1961). Eloise, or Ellie as she’s called, dreams of following her mother’s path to London, and is thrilled beyond measure when her acceptance letter arrives from the London School of Fashion. Ellie does carry the burden (and visions) of her mother’s mental illness, and her grandmother warns, “London can be a lot.”
Ellie with her timidity and wide-eyed innocence arrives in London and is immediately the target of ‘mean girl’ and fellow student Jocasta (Synnove Karlsen). Rather than subject herself to the abuse, Ellie sublets an attic room from an old lady landlord named Mrs. Collins (the last screen appearance for the great Diana Rigg). Ellie loves the room and her independence, but her dreams act as a portal back to those swinging 1960s of which she’s so fond. But that’s only the beginning. It’s here where she follows/becomes Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), and the mirror effects are truly other-worldly. Sandie is everything that Ellie wishes she was herself – confident, radiant, ambitious, and beautiful. This dream state allows Ellie to live vicariously through Sandie. At least initially.
The Ellie-Sandie sequences mess with your head in a wonderful way. Sandie seems to float across the club’s dance floor, and Ellie is mesmerized at first, before turning protective. The tone shifts when Sandie meets sleazy Jack (Matt Smith), a would-be agent who promises to get Sandie the shot at stardom she desires. This leads to Anya Taylor-Joy’s amazing and breathy version of Petula Clark’s “Downtown”. It’s a standalone highlight of the film, and a moment that shifts the story yet again. If you are struggling to keep pace, you’re not alone.
Soho’s glamour is matched only by its grunge. The recurring dreams turn to nightmares, so that even Ellie’s waking hours are surreal. A mysterious elderly gent played by Terence Stamp may be the key to the mystery Ellie’s so busy trying to solve that she is oblivious to the romantic overtures by nice guy John (Michael Ajao). The nostalgia of the 1960s provides a visual treat with the Café de Paris, a massive theater marquee advertising James Bond’s Thunderball, and Cilla Black’s “You’re My World”.
Filmmaker Wright gives us so much to discuss, but it’s crucial that the best parts not be spoiled. Just know that Oscar-winner Steven Price (Gravity, 2013) provides an incredible mix of music, while Chung-Hoon Chung’s cinematography, Marcus Rowland’s Production Design, and Odile Dicks-Mireaux’s costumes all nearly steal the show. But of course, that can’t possibly happen thanks to the stupendous performances from Anya Taylor-Joy and (especially) Thomasin McKenzie. These are two of the finest young actors working today, and we will be fortunate to watch their careers develop.
Edgar Wright is having quite a year. He’s already delivered the terrific documentary, The Sparks Brothers, and now comes what is his best work yet. You may know his work on Baby Driver (2017) or the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy that kicked off with Shaun of the Dead (2004). Here, he playfully bounces between genres serving up time travel, a murder mystery, the Soho history, a memorable soundtrack, surreal dream and ghost sequences, a touch of romance, and that previously mentioned ‘slasher’ scene. A final tip of the cap to Diana Rigg, whose career spanned her role as Emma Peel in The Avengers (from the 1960s), her time as a Bond girl in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), and ultimately as Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones.