Cast: Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, Terence Stamp. Directed by Edgar Wright.
Edgar Wright has never made a true horror film, his previous five films have all flirted with the prospect. The zombie gore of Shaun of the Dead is horrific for sure, the killings in Hot Fuzz are very much ripped from slasher films, the existential dread of facing your own darker side in Scott Pilgrim, the abject terror of an entire town coming after you in The World’s End, even the third act turn of Jon Hamm in Baby Driver feels like it’s taken from a horror film but none of them are truly a horror film. That changes with Last Night in Soho.
Following Eloise – Thomasin McKenzie – a budding fashion designer who appears to have the ability to see ghosts, as she travels from Cornwall to London to study at the London College of Fashion. Her innocence is tested when she moves into a room and finds herself traveling back into the swinging sixties and inhabiting the life of the enigmatic singer Sandy – Anya Taylor-Joy.
It goes without saying but Wright’s latest has a fantastic soundtrack – of course it does, it’s an Edgar Wright film – but it’s particularly well-chosen because it creates an emotional shorthand to the time and place in which the film is set. Last Night in Soho is a film that at first appears to love the sixties, but accompanied by a suitably moody score from Steven Price we discover there’s a dark heart to the film.
Wright and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns channel the spirit of Polanski’s early work here – there’s more than a hint of Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby about this film. At one point we’re told by the late Dame Diana Rigg “this is London, someone has died in every room”. And as the film uncovers its many dark secrets we discover that nostalgia is a dangerous thing.
At its heart that is what the film is about, Eloise is in love with an idealised version of the sixties, all flowing dresses and Cilla Black records but with none of the understanding that it was not a very safe time for women. Wright couldn’t have planned this but him and Wilson-Cairns have made a film that speaks to the recent events. The murder of Sarah Everard is not the first but it feels like a watershed moment and Wright’s film comments directly on how little things have changed for women in the intervening years.
Through Eloise we meet Sandy, an at first sexy and seductive singer who slowly but surely has the reality of the sixties dawn on her through subtle yet harrowing moments. Wright’s editing is always of note but here it comes out into play. Repeated lines, and images come to the fore in shockingly effective ways. It’s a film of sights and sounds, from the oft repeated phrase “that’s a lovely name” to the images of apparitions with sinister missing faces.
One sequence in which smooth talker Matt Smith dances with both Taylor-Joy and McKenzie is a masterclass in editing and camera work, forcing the line between reality and vision to become invisible. The film is about mirror images and the reflection – or refraction – of events across time.
It’s a scary film, but one that haunts the mind rather than makes the heart skip. It’s a slow burn as it builds up the fracturing of Eloise’s mind. McKenzie is perfectly cast and the innocent waif from the country who finds herself becoming more and more haunted by these visions. It’s operatic in tone and perfectly befits the women she stands in the shadow of. While Taylor-Joy’s strong minded but also damages Sandy is a masterclass is subtle acting conveyed through eyes. Matt Smith also shines as the charming wrong ‘un Jack who appears to be no good the minute his stern eyes peer out from under that mighty brow.
If the film falls down it’s in the treatment of secondary characters. Dame Diana and Terrance Stamp bring such weighty gravitas to the film that you wish both of them had more than one note to play. They both appear to be having a blast but there’s little for them to do except appear in the frame to look sinister. Similarly, Michael Ajao is wasted as supportive potential love interest John – an issue since he appears to be the only significant person of colour in the film. He’s likeable and has an every man charm but it’s all but wasted.
The cliche of mean girls in the University hall of dorms is also a little strange, as this appears to be a film about the abuse visited on women by men and yet a group of bitches appear to just torment Eloise just to fracture her poor mind even more.
The third act also lets the film down, without giving too much away, the turns and ramping up feels a little wasted and while some rug pulls are well-done others are worryingly obvious and defy the logic that the film has – until that point – kept a fairly firm grip on.
Even so, as a comment on feminism and a loving ode to the psycho-horrors of years past Last Night in Soho offers more than its fair share of jumps and bumps, with the usual Wright charm to please genre fans and newcomers alike. As a tribute to a time that made many icons, it’s also a warning that our nostalgia for a time and place can numb us to the realities. A warning as well as a tribute.
Also: The Kinks feature prominently – always a win.