Writer/director Edgar Wright highlights the dangers of nostalgia in this tightly-made and somewhat slippery thriller, one that represents a significant shift in his directorial aesthetic. One could quibble over the film’s treatment of mental illness and sex work in a social context, but doing so would mean ignoring its obvious pulp pretensions. Altogether, Last Night in Soho is a pretty sensational piece of work.
Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) is a young Cornish woman who moves to London to undertake a fashion design degree at a prestigious university. She struggles to fit in, and retreats into her enthused fandom for 1960s music and culture. Each night she dreams of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), an aspiring nightclub singer in 1960s Soho, but as time goes on her dreams begin to bleed into her reality – and Sandie’s life appears more true than imagined.
Last Night in Soho juggles an impressive number of elements. First and foremost it is an excellent pastiche thriller, combining immediately recognisable elements together in a dynamic and stimulating way: a hefty dose of Hitchock, a sprinkling of Polanski, a dash of Argento-esque giallo, and so on. It also echoes actual 1960s thrillers made in the UK. Its construction as a cultural collage would, in itself, produce an entertaining feature. There is a greater agenda underlying the aesthetic though, and its in that attitude that Wright makes his own enthusiastic style work for a fresh purpose.
Run all the way back to the 1999 sitcom Spaced, which Wright directed, and you can find an aggressive blend of pop culture references, popular music, and highly stylised photography. It is a self-aware, typically post-modern approach that has benefitted Wright through a range of subsequent feature comedies – notably Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), and Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010). In Last Night in Soho Eloise uses an obsession with the ‘swinging sixties’ as an emotional crutch: it is safe territory, and connects her emotionally to her late mother. She is obsessed, however, with a fiction. The 1960s of Eloise’s dreams are constructed from the pleasant parts society holds onto, rather than the real decade that society experienced. One dwells on the beautiful fashions, the upbeat music, and neon-lit fashionable nightclubs on rainy London streets. One avoids the racism, the sexism, and the violence, or the riots and protests. There were serial killings and organised crime, gang violence, political scandals, strikes and protests, and a rise in gambling and prostitution.
Wright’s skills with pastiche are put to exceptional effect, in both script (co-written with Krysty Wilson-Cairns) and presentation. He superbly constructs an idealised past for Eloise, and populates it brilliantly with Anya Taylor-Joy as Sandie and Matt Smith as her ‘teddy boy’ manager and boyfriend Jack. Both are enormously talented actors, and both hold a somewhat idiosyncratic look that aids the dreamlike quality of the film’s period sequences.
Then he sours those sequences. The idealised lightness of touch is replaced by seedy exploitation and sexual violence. The indulgent fantasy of Eloise’s dreams – initially so twee as to reflect a sort of anodyne Richard Curtis comedy – becomes a paranoid, visually grotesque nightmare. A combination of clever photography and visual effects work wonderfully in either reality. This is one of the best, and most vividly staged, horror films of its year.
The film is constructed to keep its audience guessing. What is a dream, and what is reality? Is Eloise – superbly played by a brittle and vulnerable McKenzie – actually travelling through time? Has she succumbed to schizophrenia? The film’s third act is particularly bold and, I suspect, rather divisive. It worked perfectly well for me, but opinions will likely differ.
It is worth highlighting some excellent supporting performances, notably Terence Stamp as a creepy and mysterious man in the present and Michael Ajao as design student John. Stamp has never looked quite so charismatic, while Ajao does an excellent job being sympathetic without feeling simplistic. Diana Rigg also features as Eloise’s elderly landlady. It was her final performance, completed mere weeks before her death, and is predictably wonderful.
I am leaning towards this being Wright’s best film yet. There is a huge cult following for his earlier comedic works, but this represents a more mature and versatile director. He shows off an ability to use the frantic, choppy style of his previous films when it is needed, and to pull back the energy when his story requires it. Old archetypes are well exercised, while an innovative approach enables it all to be packaged in a fresh manner. Last Night in Soho is imaginative, top-notch horror.