Last Night in Soho

Ellie takes fright

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.

Diana Rigg as Ms Collins
Diana Rigg’s last performance



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.



Last Night in Soho – Watch it/buy it at Amazon





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© Steve Morrissey 2021









Far from the Madding Crowd

Terence Stamp and Julie Christie in Far from the Madding Crowd

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

11 January

 

 

Thomas Hardy dies, 1928

On this day in 1928, the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy died. He was 87 and this Victorian writer had survived into and almost through the age of the formal modernist, such as Joyce, with whom he had little in common, though he was an informing influence on writers with a more earthy, carnal and rural inclination, such as DH Lawrence.

Hardy had trained as an architect in the 1860s but didn’t enjoy life in London and as soon as he became established enough he moved back to the West Country (Somerset, then Dorset) where he remained till he died.

After four early books written while he was an architect, two of which he published anonymously because he was embarrassed at their naked commercial intent, Hardy published Far from the Madding Crowd in 1874. It was a hit and it allowed him to devote himself full time to writing. The books that followed it were, like Far from the Madding Crowd and much of Hardy’s most popular work, set in the fictional Wessex – the Somerset, Dorset, Wiltshire area of south west England.

When Hardy’s much loved wife of 38 years died in 1912 he got married again, to his secretary, who was 39 years younger than him. Now often seen as a whiskery paragon of Victorian virtue, Hardy was often criticised in his lifetime for his frank treatment of sex, particularly in 1895’s Jude the Obscure, whose portrait of a man driven by “erotolepsy” (ie his dick) shocked Victorians, who bought it in huge numbers (in plain covers).

Let’s also not forget Hardy’s lubricious portraits of his female protagonists – Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Bathsheba in Far from the Madding Crowd. But it’s fate, and fatalism, that drives many of his best books, with sex merely a carnal manifestation of the disruptive power of a universe with no benign creator at the helm.

 

 

 

Far from the Madding Crowd (1967, dir: John Schlesinger)

Whether you go a bundle on this adaptation of Hardy or not – and not everyone does – it is probably the film to turn to if you want to see Julie Christie, the epitome of the smart, free, upwardly mobile 1960s young woman, at her most beautiful. And Terence Stamp too, come to that. In films where naked lust is the driver of the plot, it really helps if you can get behind the notion that the people being portrayed really would make you lose your head.

And there is a lot of that going on here. At the centre of it all is Christie’s Bathsheba, a “headstrong” woman (ie borderline bitch) who employs poor shepherd/former suitor/torch-bearer Gabriel (Alan Bates) to help on her farm, makes flirtatious eyes at local man-of-means William Boldwood (Peter Finch), only to run off and marry the dashing Sergeant Troy (Stamp), who has, unbeknown to her, already got a local girl in the family way.

Bathsheba is then tossed back and forth by her own choices, her lust and uncaring fate, in a story that pits her against three archetypes of male suitor – Stamp is the sexually exciting rotter, Finch the decent would-be provider, Bates the quietly devoted servant.

It is true that Christie might be just a touch too much the 1960s girl – the posters describe the film as being about “a wilful passionate girl and… the three men who want her!”, which makes her sound like a version of Marianne Faithfull. But, its two leads apart – Sixties faces par excellence – this is in many senses a 1950s film, a big-budget studio-driven affair packed with talent: screenplay by Frederic Raphael, cinematography by Nicolas Roeg, score by Richard Rodney Bennett. And watched in that light, as almost the last of a dying breed, its three hours are well worth plumping up the sofa for.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Stamp and Christie at their best
  • Nicolas Roeg’s lyrical, beautiful Panavision cinematography
  • Frederic Raphael’s intelligent script
  • Anyone for a film with an Intermission?

 

 

 

Far from the Madding Crowd – watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2014