Last Night in Soho, Edgar Wright‘s seventh feature film, sees the director of Welcome to the End of the World entangled in nostalgia, on the one hand warning of the dangers of falling into it and, on the other, paying homage to a time and an era, the ‘Swinging London’ of the 1960s. In this film he completely rethinks his pop obsession, going to the place that many music nerds would consider paradise, the London of the mid-60s, and turning that dream world, beyond the great pop songs or the wonderful styling, into a nightmare when he discovers that this historic place, as James Brown would say, is a man’s world, a rotten, macho place not suitable for aspiring female stars.
The film is a true visual prodigy and contains a fascinating first hour, full of great moments, from the opening scene that serves to introduce us to Eloise Turner, a young woman obsessed with London in the 60s who dreams of making it as a dressmaker, to the rhythm of “A World Without Love” that Paul McCartney wrote and Peter & Gordon turned into a hit, or the wonderful introduction of the character played by Anya Taylor-Joy that allows the director to make real flourishes with the camera, in a dance in which the two actresses mingle dancing with Matt Smith, also playing with their reflections in mirrors, windows and so on, in a marvellous exercise of masks and identities.
The director’s fascination with the chosen place and location is evident, not least because Wright is from Soho itself and the London neighbourhood is a character in the film, it should not be forgotten that Soho was chic, fashionable and cool, but the London neighbourhood was also known as the centre of the city’s sex trade and gangland, it is no coincidence that the film is set there, both in the present and in the past.
The film follows Ellie Turner, the girl in love with the records listened to by her mother, who committed suicide when she was a child, and her grandmother, her room papered with posters from the era, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Twiggy. Before leaving for London, it is made clear that the girl has also suffered from bouts of mental illness, having seen her dead mother on several occasions. When she arrives in London to study fashion, she finds herself with a rather stupid flatmate who seems likely to make her life miserable, so she leaves the hall of residence and ends up renting a room in an old, totally vintage Soho house where she begins to fantasise, dream or remember travelling back in time where she meets Sandie, an aspiring new Cilla Black or new Sandie Shaw, with whom she suffers a game of mirrors in which it is not quite clear whether she is a fantasy, her other self or a ghost from the past.
The fact is that after a first few moments in which it seems like magical realism and a fairy tale, things will drift towards a nightmarish world, in which Sandie will be taken advantage of to get her into prostitution and the film will take a turn towards horror, with one eye on Polanski‘s Repulsion and another on the Giallo, with Dario Argento as the main reference point. Once again, the film will continue to be an audiovisual spectacle, with Wright delivering a work of incredible technical skill, with many perfectly chosen songs of the period, such as “Starstruck” by the Kinks in which Ray Davies sings something applicable to the two protagonists of the film: You’re a victim of bright city lights and your mind is not right.
But while the visual fascination continues throughout the film, once the film becomes a psychological horror movie the script begins to falter, resulting in a not entirely convincing resolution. It’s a shame because Last Night in Soho could have been a well-rounded film, but in the end it ends up falling short of expectations due to some script cracks.
Of course, these cracks are less noticeable thanks to Wright’s attention to every detail of the film, from the carefully crafted soundtrack to the choice of cast. The two lead actresses are wonderful, both Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy, and are the film’s best, though it’s in the supporting players that Wright’s fetish for the period comes through, with Rita Tushingham, the protagonist of Richard Lester‘s The Knack…. and How to Get It, the defining film of Swinging London, as Eloise’s grandmother; Matt Smith, one of those who played the title role in the English Doctor Who series as Sandie’s manager-turned-pimp; Terence Stamp, the face of English ‘Free Cinema’, and for many the Terry of the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset”, as the scheming Lindsay; Margaret Nolan, the woman covered in gold paint in Goldfinger, in a small role and, finally, the immense Diana Rigg, the star of The Avengers, as well as James Bond’s wife in 007 On Her Majesty’s Service (though today’s audiences remember her more as Olenna Tyrell, the Queen of Thorns, in Game of Thrones) as Sandie’s landlady. Both Nolan and Rigg died before the film’s release, and Wright has chosen to dedicate it with a terse but heartfelt “For Diana” to the latter.
It is clear that Wright, like Eloise, feels this fascination with the past and, although this film is also a warning about the futility of feeling nostalgia for a yesterday that doesn’t belong to you, it also happens to her protagonist, who can’t help but feel an enormous imprint of those years and that place, with the director himself acknowledging that he began the film by pulling from his parents’ record collection and his memories of Soho as a setting. By the end of the film you can feel all that, but also that the story doesn’t live up to the realisation, with style taking precedence over substance, almost like that nightmarish London that he recreates so well, in which the exterior glitter serves to hide the ugliness of what happens outside the spotlight. All in all, a fascinating but uneven film.