Edgar Wright, born 1974, hymns the 1960s, a decade he never saw, in Last Night in Soho, a genre mash-up and nerd’s custard with looks, style and verve to spare.
Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) is a shy 1960s-obsessed girl from the sticks who comes to London to study fashion. Having got off to a bad start with a gang of other students who’d be called “plastics” if this were a high school movie, Ellie takes a room with seen-it-all-dearie landlady Ms Collins (Diana Rigg). By day Ellie continues her studies, crafting bits of pink chiffon into babydoll outfits for imaginary peroxided 1960s women. But by night, in a magical meld of bodyswappiness and time travel, Ellie is transported into the Soho (London version) of the 1960s, where the country mouse is now called Sandie (and McKenzie is replaced by a sassy, sexy Anya Taylor-Joy) and she dives into that bit of nightlife where entertainment and sex work overlap.
Over time, Ellie finds it increasingly difficult to keep the two world apart. There is a good side to this. In the here and now, the excruciatingly timid Ellie grows a (female) pair and becomes more self-confident. But, in 1960s Soho, Sandie is falling increasingly under the domineering control of the initially charming Jack (Matt Smith, chewing his Cockney glottals) and the would-be singer is becoming little more than a rich man’s sex toy.
Whether Ellie is dreaming or having psychotic episodes – she’s still haunted by appearances by her dead mother – is just one of many, many bits of narrative Wright and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns try to stuff into this full-to-bursting two hours taking a tour of various genres – fantasy (obviously), a bit of musical, some British New Wave, a coming of age tale, love story, thriller, mystery – before finally settling on horror.
Battling for presence in this whirligig is Ellie, a painfully vanilla character. And no matter how much oomph McKenzie tries to put into her, there’s little beyond abject victimhood for the actor to get hold of. More puzzlingly, the initially ballsy Sandie ends up that way too – as a lamb to the slaughter (not something you’d peg Anya Taylor-Joy as).
To the rescue a clutch of 1960s names. Rigg, as star of The Avengers, was one of the faces of the mid 1960s. Terence Stamp plays one of the old roués of Soho, still handsome and about as fly as you can imagine any man of 82. Rita Tushingham as Ellie’s grandma – the defining British actress of the early 1960s for A Taste of Honey. And Margaret Nolan, on whose blonde tits-out 1960s persona Sandie’s sex muffin look is modelled. To be honest, Nolan isn’t in it much, and though the IMDb insists she was a key player back then, she wasn’t – she massaged Sean Connery in Goldfinger (and posed as the gold-sprayed woman in publicity material for the film) and appeared in “phwoar” roles in a handful of Carry On movies.
By the time the film debuted, two of these old stagers had died – Rigg (who was doing voice dubs for Edgar Wright on her deathbed) and Nolan – and Last Night in Soho functions as a farewell both to them and to the 1960s, the boomer decade that boomed too long.
Wright’s view of it is the now standard one – wow, it was stylish but wasn’t it hellish for women! The nightclubs Sandie frequents are all full of young women with much older men, who have “I cannot believe my luck” leers all over their faces. But his love of the era is obvious. This film’s visuals are gorgeous, whether it’s the cinematography (by Chan-wook Park’s regular DP Chung-hoon Chung), the clothes (like the wet-look belted white PVC mac both Sandie and Ellie wear), or glorious statement moments, like when Ellie enters 1960s Soho for the first time and is confronted by a cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue where Thunderball has just opened – it’s breathtakingly glam.
Wright gets the music right, too – some belters (Cilla Black’s version of You’re My World) but more often the slightly less well known songs from the era, like A World Without Love (Peter and Gordon), Beat Girl (John Barry), or Land of a Thousand Dances (The Walker Brothers).
Ultimately nerdery gets the better of Wright. As he marches through the genres scattering fanboy references (Powell and Pressburger, giallo, British kitchen sinkers), human drama and the telling of a good story (which it is) get slightly left behind. The impression left behind at the end is that Last Night in Soho is more about the artist than the artwork. More Ellie, less Edgar, please.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021