Director: Edgar Wright
Writer: Edgar Wright, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Cast: Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, Diana Rigg, Rita Tushingham, Terence Stamp, Synnove Karlsen, Margaret Nolan
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Nira Park, Edgar Wright
Music: Steven Prince
Cinematographer: Chung Chung-hoon
Editor: Paul Machliss
Running time: 116mins
What’s the story: Fashion student Eloise (McKenzie) lives her love of swinging sixties London when she is transported back to that golden decade via a psychic bond to aspiring singer Sandy (Taylor-Joy). But London’s dark belly is soon revealed and both women are imperilled across the decades.
What’s the verdict: One of film criticisms big clichés is to declare the city in a film “becomes a character in itself.” But we’re never one to run from cliché. In any case, for Last Night in Soho it is inarguably true. Even as the capital’s streets transform into a red and blue gel-filtered nightmare-scape closing in on Eloise. The streets and landmark pubs of London’s Soho pulse with a character as lively as any performance from the impressive cast. And bop to the rhythms of Dusty Springfield, Cilla Black and other sixties faves on the jukebox soundtrack.
Which is why it is disappointing to report that director and co-writer Wright’s return to Blighty after the blockbuster success of Baby Driver (tarnished by Kevin Spacey’s actions and accusations against Ansel Elgort) is good, but not great.
The positives in this mash-up of Goodnight Sweetheart, Peeping Tom and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage lie in the design and performances. Wright is incapable of making a visually bland movie, and assisted by regular Park Chan-wook DoP Chung Chung-hoon has created a gorgeous film of neon drench and inky shadow. Deft CGI creates several stunning sequences: Eloise and Sandy switch places with a twirl or glance at the mirror, stunning examples of how digital FX can be used beyond superhero spectacle.
His cast is similarly exciting. After impressing in numerous supporting roles, Thomasin McKenzie proves her lead credentials by anchoring the wild tale with a turn of impressive range, heartbreaking, hysterical, resilient, and caring. The film demands a lot (including a West Country accent) and the New Zealand born actor meets the challenge.
In supporting roles, Anya Taylor-Joy as the tragic Sandy and Matt Smith as small-time manager and lothario Jack bring old school charm and swagger to the sixties sections. Diana Rigg (in her final film role) as a crochety landlady, Terrence Stamp as an intimidating maybe-gangster and Rita Tushingham as Eloise’s gran are all icons of that decade paid homage here. As is Margaret Nolan, Goldfinger Bond girl and Carry On alum, in a quick cameo as a worried barmaid.
Where Last Night in Soho stumbles is in the time-travel plot and the darker territory it explores. Rules governing Eloise’s sixth sense and trips to the past, and yesteryear then threatening the present, are governed by plot expediency rather than plot logic. Living in the past and becoming an observer in your own life are both rich ideas, but here deny the central character agency until late in the tale.
Commendable that Wright and co-writer Wilson-Cairns remind audiences the free-loving sixties, in which men wanted to be James Bond and women wanted to be with James Bond, were actually a boys’ club era of rampant sexism and exploitation. Admirable too that they choose to do this through increasingly explicit horror tropes, as Eloise uncovers a forgotten murder mystery.
Yet, this remains all surface. Absent is the transgressive commentary of audience complicity found in Peeping Tom, or the genuine oddball menace of the 1959 Harry H. Corbett starring shocker Cover Girl Killer. Wright and Wilson-Cairn’s characters are beholden to the plot, when for a story with this much darkness it needed to be vice versa. Or, to invoke Performance’s tagline, versa vice.
Much like The World’s End would have satisfied more had it stuck to the character drama and ditched the sci-fi, Last Night in Soho would work better as a study of a young woman riding the whirlwind of life in a big city. The film is at its best when capturing the lonely awkwardness of first being away from friends and family. Kudos here to Synnove Karlsen as Eloise’s nightmare roomie, an amalgam of every fake friend made in fresher’s week. Those trips to the sixties could have been woven in more successfully as a mental crutch Eloise needs to toss away.
The impression at this point is Wright similarly needs to trust his storytelling abilities and move beyond conventional genre trappings. Anyone wants to discuss this, they can buy us a pint at The Toucan.