Every movie made by British director, Edgar Wright, feels like a classic hits compilation album. With pop songs of the 1960s and 70s being belted out at regular intervals it gives the impression the action has been tailored to match the soundtrack. Baby Driver (2017) took its title from a Simon and Garfunkel song, and Last Night in Soho is named after a number by Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. Remember them? The Legend of Xanadu is their claim to pop immortality.
Wright started his career directing TV comedies and he’s never lost his taste for slapstick and black humour. His movies are fast-moving, packed with cinematic gags and homages. Films such as Shaun of the Dead (2004), and The World’s End (2013) might be described horror-comedies – a hybrid genre Jordan Peel has recently made his own.
Last Night in Soho has a bit of everything: music, crime, horror, and a fearsome nostalgia for the 60s, which Wright (b.1974) missed altogether.
The heroine, Eloise, or Ellie, is played by Kiwi actress, Thomasin McKenzie, who can also be seen this week in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. Fresh-faced and innocent, we meet Ellie as she is leaving the home she shares with her Gran (Rita Tushingham), in Cornwall, to study at the London School of Fashion. She’s following in the footsteps of her mother, who became mentally ill and committed suicide when Ellie was only seven years old. No father is mentioned.
The absent mother plays a big role in Ellie’s life, appearing mysteriously in mirrors, and probably helping to explain her daughter’s obsession with the 60s. Ellie loves the period’s music and fashion, even though it makes her an anomaly among the other students, whose tastes are ruthlessly contemporary.
To escape the chaos of college, and her ghastly roommate, Jocasta (Synnove Karlsen), Ellie moves to a bed-sitter in a dilapidated terrace in Goodge Street. Her landlady is a tough old dame named Miss Collins (Diana Rigg, in her final role!), who has spent her life in Soho. No sooner has Ellie moved in than the dreams begin – vivid nightly excursions into the London underworld of the 60s. But it’s not mousey Ellie marching into the nightclub, it’s a mysterious, glamorous alter-ego, Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy).
In her dreams Ellie morphs back and forth with Sandie, marvelling at her avatar’s brazen self-confidence as she marches into the Café de Paris and tells the local talent-spotter, Jack (Matt Smith), that she’s the new Cilla Black. A glittering career beckons, or does it?
Ellie begins working on the pink chiffon dress Sandie wore in her dreams, and transforms herself into a blonde. The Soho fantasies return every night, but they take a nasty turn as the fun and glamour gives way to some distressing realisations. Jack, it turns out, is hardly more than a pimp. Sandie wanted to be a star but she finds herself a hostess in a nightclub, listening to the banal chat of middle-aged businessmen intent on taking her to bed.
Ellie is traumatised by these nightly visions that become progressively more ugly and frightening, spilling over into daily life, until the line between dream and reality disappears. The ghosts of the creepy businessmen Sandie was obliged to entertain, haunt Ellie day and night. They lurk like grey zombies, always ready to pounce.
As Ellie’s world disintegrates we wonder if she is the victim of supernatural forces, or if she has inherited her mother’s schizophrenia. She becomes convinced that a cranky old man, played by Terence Stamp, knows what happened to the real Sandie, who is no mere figment of her imagination. In her growing derangement Ellie has one sympathetic ally, a black student named John (Michael Ajao), who tells her he knows what it’s like to be an outsider, and tries to help her stay sane.
The mystery will be solved – albeit in a slightly predictable manner – in a dramatic finale, as the music keeps rolling. Wright builts an elaborate, seductive platform but races to a climax in a chaotic manner. The characters are never fully developed, being cartoon-like in the way they are presented. The primacy of visuals and music ensure that the entire film unfolds like a bande dessinée rather than a conventional drama.
The central tension in Last Night in Soho derives from Wright’s wish to tell a story that debunks the myth of ‘swinging London’ while indulging it on every other front. A tale of brutality and disillusion, in which women are ruthlessly exploited, is wrapped in a whirl of rapid cuts and pans, giddying close-ups and scenes-within-scenes. We are sucked into the atmosphere of the nightcubs, and propelled through darkened streets illuminated by the glare of neon. All to a booming soundtrack of familiar, singalong hits.
Star power and nostalgia are crucial to the movie’s appeal. The use of 60s icons such as Rigg, Stamp and Tushingham, is an unashamed homage to the films and TV series in which these actors made their reputations. Among rising stars, McKenzie’s timidity and vulnerability is played off against the razzle-dazzle of big-eyed Anya Taylor-Joy in a blonde bouffante.
The inconsistencies of the plot are papered over by the distractions of sound and image, making Last Night in Soho a rather brittle entertainment. It’s overwhelming at point of contact but begins to fade as soon as we leave the cinema. For many viewers a two hour break from reality is sufficient unto itself, but one can’t help feeling there is a dimension to this story that gets smothered by Wright’s indulgence in image and atmosphere. One wonders what an acute observer of British modern history such as Stephen Poliakoff would have made of this material.
The plot of Last Night in Soho tells us that swinging London wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, but everything else in the movie screams, “Yes, yes! It was!” It’s horribly tempting to forget the moral of the story and just soak up the sensations.
Last Night in Soho
Directed by Edgar Wright
Written by Edgar Wright & Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, Michael Ajao, Terence Stamp, Diana Rigg, Rita Tushingham, Synnove Karlsen, Pauline McLyn
UK, rated MA 15+, 116 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 27 November, 2021