A love letter to London, the ‘60s, and genre cinema
There’s a phrase, “If these walls could talk”. What has happened in this room, this building, on a street corner, what echos of the past would we be able to hear imprinted on our lived in surrounds? Last Night in Soho is more than just a rapturous return to the big screen for Edgar Wright, it’s his own way of bringing the ghosts of the past back to life, and making their mark on the present.
Eloise Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) is a girl with yearnings for a bygone era. The fashion and music of the 60s, providing her a comfort and escape to a time before her mother took her own life after a struggle with mental illness. Following her dream, she leaves behind her Gran (Rita Tushingham, Doctor Zhivago, A Taste of Honey) and travels from the idyllic countryside of Cornwall to the hustle and bustle of the capital, to study at the London College of Fashion. Overwhelmed by this transition, her plight is deepened by the reemergence of the same gift that plagued her mother: a connection to spirits, or the psychological imprints on a place. Her rented room in a house serving as a portal to the past, connecting her tangibly to Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy), an aspiring singer in the 60s. So, by day Ellie finds herself dealing with the bitchy behavior of classmates and loneliness of life in London, and at night living vicariously through this connection to a girl who sees herself as the next Cilla Black. Taken under the wing of Jack, a local promoter (Matt Smith), Sandy finds that the promise of fame comes with a high price. This pair’s shared dream of the 60s soon turns into a nightmare, and for Eloise the horrors she glimpses in the past, start to manifest in her present.
A psychological thriller with a pinch of Polanski, a hint of Hitchcock, a dash of Hammer horror, and lashings of giallo, Wright’s effort opens with a pining for the past and deft introduction to the plight of young Eloise. Her reverence for the ‘60s proving well warranted by our first immersion in a resplendent London – a rousing burst of light and activity. Period cars, billboards advertising Sean Connery’s Thunderball, exquisite dresses and well tailored suits. It’s not too long before the veneer is peeled away to show the rot beneath. For Sandy, performances and promises are replaced by predators and pimps – the toxicity of men in power on full display. For Eloise, sharing these experiences, it’s more trauma on top of what she is already processing. A sojourn to the swinging ‘60s becomes a meditation on how clinging to the past can hold you back from processing loss and fear, and from finding your own path.
Anya-Taylor Joy (The Witch, Emma.) captivates as you’d expect, reveling in the glitz and later grime of her showbiz life, but this is Thomasin McKenzie’s (Leave No Trace and Jojo Rabbit) show. A deeply earnest and endearing performer, her embrace of the past and later recoil at its horrors adds a crucially immersive element. Matt Smith (Doctor Who, Lost River) mirrors this tonal tilt, with a suave performance that soon reveals a more malevolent side. In addition to Tushingham, a potent Terence Stamp (The Limey, The Hit) delivers a crucial turn, as does the late Dame Diana Rigg (Game of Thrones, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) with her glorious final feature outing as Eloise’s acerbic landlady Ms. Collins. These legendary figures from British culture add another sense of legitimacy to period proceedings.
The on-point recreation of ‘60s Soho is illuminated by cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, who delivers a ritzy authenticity. Nothing too gaudy, the sparkle driven home by a contrast with the mundanity of modern day London with concrete and chain stores replacing the bright lights and dark alleyways of the past. Glitz and glamor versus gentrification. The sights are lifted by the sounds of the ‘60s, with toe tapping tunes from Dusty Springfield, Sandie Shaw, The Kinks, and more. A score by Steven Price harkens back to the stamp put on giallo films by the great Ennio Morricone, leveraging in the vocals of Anya-Taylor Joy, as well as a deft deployment of Cilla Black’s “You’re My World”.
It is a credit to the style of Wright and his script, penned alongside Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917), that the less glossy events of the present day are not overshadowed by the more evocative tone of the past. But there are some weaknesses. The investigative aspect of the film is under-worked, most notably in the final act as things careen to their conclusion. While it’s welcome to see women take the lead in a Wright venture, an exploration of male toxicity and the female response doesn’t quite feel sharp enough. There is also a lack of deeper contrast between the two eras and their respective leads. But for sheer entertainment, it’s undeniably fun to have something be so evocative and a little over the top. The Last Night in Soho is a burst of energy and creativity, delivering a love letter to London, the ‘60s, and genre cinema.