“And you may find somebody kind to help and understand you.”
According to Google, the definition for a “nostalgist” is: “a person who has a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past.” The definition elaborates further by saying: “nostalgists conjure a bygone era when people were more respectful.” It’s a somewhat profound and ironic explanation in today’s world where so much of the past is in vogue again, from vinyl records to 35 mm screenings of classic films and of course, fashion. There’s always been a deep affinity towards the eras that have come before which have been romanticized, mainly by those who wish they were there. Whether or not writer/director Edgar Wright is himself a nostalgist, I don’t argue. Likewise, I don’t automatically assume that his latest film, the horror/thriller Last Night in Soho, serves as his own personal comment on the current wave of those individuals who proudly wear the nostalgist title. What the director has done, however, is create a film that speaks to the power of nostalgia. It’s a film that delves into that intoxicating blend of wonder and escape offered up by the past and presents us with a lonely young woman who eventually becomes consumed by it.
Last Night in Soho opens on the lovely Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie), a wide-eyed teenager who has just arrived in London to study fashion. Obsessed with the era of London in the swinging 60s, Ellie is thrilled to have found a vintage studio apartment in an old house near Soho for rent. Shortly after going to bed on her first night, she finds herself magically transported into the 1960s and experiencing the city through the eyes of Sandie (Anya-Taylor Joy), the girl who lived in Ellie’s room decades earlier. Ellie watches as Sandie tries to launch herself as a singer by enticing the handsome Jack (Matt Smith), a handsome man with connections. Slowly but surely though, Sandie’s journey takes a dark turn as Ellie sees the glamor and allure of the 60s begin to fade away.
Last Night in Soho is a feast for the eyes; and a practical one at that. Wright has recreated London from the 60s down to the very last detail. The opulence, the exuberance, all of it has been meticulously brought to life, leading to a number of extended sequences that are rich in both story and visual pleasures. The clothes Sandie wears, the drinks she orders, her crooning of Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” all of it symbolizes London in the 60s as we all believed it to be, or at least, wanted to believe it to be. Hands down the centerpiece of these scenes is the dance number in which Sandie and Eloise are both dancing with Jack in a truly magical sequence which Wright pulls off almost exclusively through practical effects. In fact, from a technical standpoint, Last Night in Soho is a testament to the power and eternal wizardry of practical filmmaking. So much of what is accomplished here is done not with a green screen, but with the kind of old school movie trickery that the playful Wright uses any chance he can. The result is a marvel to behold and so well-executed, that when the director does opt for modern practices in the Giallo-heavy finale, the two methods ending up working harmoniously together for an all-around solid film experience.
As beautiful and as carefree as Wright’s vision of 60s London has been made out to be, there is a more sinister one waiting to emerge. Slowly Sandie begins to lose control of the situation she’s in, succumbing to London’s darker side and losing herself in the process. It’s here where the trance of nostalgia is broken and a real mystery begins to show itself linking Sandie’s past with Eloise’s present. Seeing the latter trail the former through her dreams, both of their fantasies are shown to be stripped away in mesmerizing fashion. We watch dizzyingly as Eloise trails Sandie through a long corridor where any illusions about the city and the decade are shattered in a labyrinth of horrors that include the kind of degradation and despair that Wright reminds us was also very much a part of the past. When Eloise is convinced something happened to Sandie in the past, her obsession to know the truth about it dominates her present to the point where ghostly visions begin to take over her waking life. It’s a turning point in the film, and one which ushers in the kind of very real themes the director’s past films have stayed away from, including mental health and sexual assault. The way Wright balances the meaningfulness of these issues and the poignant bond between the two young women while still managing a turn out a thrilling genre piece is nothing short of breathtaking.
There’s simply no better choice to bring Wright’s first female protagonist to the screen than McKenzie. As Eloise, the actress offers up pools of openness and vulnerability, giving herself to the character and instantly endearing her to us. The way she balances Eloise’s fragility with an unwavering strength makes for the film’s most indispensable performance. Although the nature of their scenes together are unusual, McKenzie shares an astounding chemistry with Taylor-Joy, whose otherworldly looks were made for the role of Sandie. The young actress wastes no time as she brings this epitome of 60s London to life with ease, ferocity and a melancholy that’s truly haunting. Smith makes for a highly intriguing figure and his character turn is handled expertly in the actor’s hands, while esteemed legends Terrence Stamp and Diana Rigg (in her final film role) only add to the film’s joys as a shady barfly and Eloise’s landlady, respectively.
Watching Eloise arrive in London, I was taken back to my own time in that city when I first arrived for graduate school. The whole experience couldn’t help but come flooding back as I watched Eloise’s journey and the bumpiness of settling into a new landscape. Seeing the character trying to find her own place and her own perspective, there was hardly a moment that didn’t resonate with the 20-something I was back in 2007 and the feelings of nervousness and excitement that were driving me at the time. I walked all those Soho streets and still do whenever I go back to visit friends. I’m sure it’s my own feelings as well as Wright’s expert filmmaking that are equally responsible for the attachment I have for Last Night in Soho. Like Eloise, it was an image and a fantasy that drew me to that city. The experience culminated in a series of events, most of which were wonderful, a few that weren’t and one in particular that sadly had echoes of Sandie’s fate. Much in the way the film itself ends, Last Night in Soho inspired me to take a glance in the mirror, give it a wink and walk away.