A nostalgic, blood and rain-splattered love letter to London and all that is and has ever been good, bad and decidedly ugly about the Big Smoke, Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho is, surprisingly, the director’s first effort to screen at the London Film Festival. Constructed with his trademark panache, it is bold, bracing and stylish in both its aesthetics and an outstanding retro soundtrack, but as its parallel leading ladies will discover to their peril, not all that glitters is gold.
Moving eastwards to the capital from the West Country on this occasion, the Hot Fuzz director’s latest film sees aspiring designer Eloise (a terrific Thomasin McKenzie) say goodbye to her beloved nan (Rita Tushingham) in Cornwall and set off for the London School of Fashion. Unsure as to how she will refer to herself when her name goes up in lights – Eloise, Ellie or even Elle, maybe – her quest for fame and fortune runs parallel tracks to a journey of self-discovery, of making it on her own and proving her worth. Due caution will be given here to avoid anything straying into spoiler territory, but visions of people, places and events from the past – and how they relate to a young woman’s mental health in the present – are key to a characteristically kinetic, delirious narrative, which also targets a more profound level of introspection.
And therein lies part of the problem with the script, as well as the film’s construction and treatment of some of the issues raised. Wright’s screenplay (written in tandem with Krysty Wilson-Cairns) devilishly blurs the lines between dreams and reality, past and present, and this works to wondrous effect in the early stages. Having swiftly realised that life in halls with uniformly awful human beings isn’t for her, Eloise steps back in time to a boarding house on Goodge Place, run by the inimitable Miss Collins (a wonderful Diana Rigg, in her final screen role). Presumably realising that two months’ deposit and two months’ rent in advance is quite a chunk of change in London, she takes on a job at a nearby pub and is soon wary of Terrence Stamp’s nameless patron. However, it is strange happenings when closing her eyes at night where things become curiouser and curiouser.
Unconscious, subconscious, supernatural or something more psychologically troubling, we are never sure, but transported back to Soho in the swinging sixties in a kind of waking dream, Eloise embodies or assumes the identity of wannabe singer, Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy, mesmerising, and again proving herself very well-suited to this era). Here, and throughout, it must be said that the film looks terrific. Costume and performance are of the utmost importance to each of the leading characters, and film editor Paul Machliss (who has previously worked with Wright on The World’s End and Baby Driver) does tremendous work, especially in an early Café de Paris dance sequence which alternately sees Eloise and Sandie hot-stepping around the floor with suave, smooth-talking talent agent, Jack (Matt Smith).
But looks can be deceiving and first impressions do not last. Reflections and refractions (mirrors are frequently used to great effect) begin to splinter time and consciousness, but to say more what do a disservice to those who have not yet seen the film. Needless to say, beneath the bright lights lies a darker underbelly. Manipulation and menace, toxic masculinity and mistaken identities. For all its beautiful neons, it is in Last Night in Soho’s murky greys, between the black and white, darkness and light, that our interest, engagement and a better resolution of the serious issues at hand should have been drawn.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63