- Courtesy Of Parisa Taghizadeh/Focus Features
- Taylor-Joy plays an aspiring singer in swinging London in Wright's absorbing but flawed thriller.
As a fan of the whole "swinging London" aesthetic, I've been waiting for a good moment to see the latest genre exercise from writer-director Edgar Wright (Baby Driver, Shaun of the Dead). Last Night in Soho, which had a theatrical release last fall and received two award nominations from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, is a psychological thriller set in the trendy neighborhood of the title — both in the mid-1960s and in the present day. It's streaming on HBO Max.
Country mouse Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) is ecstatic to be accepted into a London fashion college. Inspired by the vintage records she got from her grandmother (Rita Tushingham), she arrives in the big city full of visions of Carnaby Street in the mod era.
But London isn't what Eloise hoped. Everywhere she goes, men threaten or proposition her; in the dorm, her roommates are loudly contemptuous of her provincial style. She escapes to an attic flat that hasn't been remodeled since the '60s. There, every night, Eloise slips into vivid visions of her favorite era in which she becomes Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a mod glamour girl trying to make it as a singer.
Did Sandie really exist? Or is the anxiety-ridden Eloise — who also sees visions of her dead mother — simply fraying at the seams? As Sandie's story grows darker, Eloise finds her Soho dream becoming a nightmare.
Will you like it?
Wright is a genius when it comes to pastiching bygone film genres, choosing the perfect soundtrack and weaving the music into the action. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, his loving genre parodies (of zombie movies and '80s cop dramas, respectively), were spot on. With the crime thriller Baby Driver, he got serious, but the movie's style was more memorable than its story.
That's also true of Last Night in Soho: It's ultimately more successful as a frenetic, neon-lit homage to mod movies and Alfred Hitchcock-esque thrillers than it is as an exploration of Eloise's troubled psyche. Still, the film is a blast to watch, full of tantalizing suggestions of a deeper drama that never quite materializes.
McKenzie (Leave No Trace) gives a strong, layered central performance. Initially, Eloise seems insufferably twee as she bounces around her room to the strains of Peter and Gordon's "A World Without Love." But we soon see that her fixation on a sunny vision of swinging London is a way of hiding from the grim facts of her life. Her father is out of the picture; her mother made the same youthful pilgrimage to London as Eloise, then died by suicide when her daughter was 7.
Without spelling it out, the screenplay strongly hints that the city broke Eloise's mother, just as it broke Sandie and may very well break Eloise. The direct agents of that destruction are men eager to exploit young girls. Ghoulish, leering men are an inescapable presence throughout the film, fueling the fires of Eloise's paranoia. Seeking refuge from one icon of mod cinema (Terence Stamp, playing a creepy barfly), she finds refuge with another (Diana Rigg, as her landlady).
At first, the visions that Eloise's retro apartment inspires are exhilarating. Sandie is a fantasy version of herself, a girl who can dance, sing, exchange witty repartee and cut a man dead with a withering stare. Wright makes the '60s nightclub scenes intensely pleasurable for viewers, too, lighting and staging them like musical numbers and suffusing them with the soaring vocals of Cilla Black and the driving beat of the Walker Brothers' "Land of 1000 Dances."
But one can't help noticing how often those songs are about women sacrificing themselves for love. When Sandie's manager/boyfriend (Matt Smith) becomes her pimp, the era's dark side surfaces.
Unlike Baz Luhrmann in Moulin Rouge!, Wright doesn't try to cast a romantic halo over what was actually a pretty seedy scene. (The era's greatest political scandal, the Profumo affair, involved London pimps selling the services of teenage girls to prominent citizens.) The director and his cowriter, Krysty Wilson-Cairns, make an earnest attempt to explore how the fantasy that empowers Eloise also entraps her. Ultimately, however, they fail to bring those themes to fruition, largely because the viewer never learns enough about Eloise's mother to connect the dots between her and Sandie.
Growing more repetitive and thematically muddled as it goes, Last Night in Soho fails to stick the landing as a feminist psychological thriller. But as a diversion for hot summer nights, it's more than worth any nostalgia lover's time.
If you like this, try...
A Taste of Honey (1961; HBO Max, rentable): With the 1960s came a wave of kitchen-sink dramas that explored working-class life in the UK. Tushingham, who plays Eloise's grandmother, starred in this one. You can also see her in the quintessential mod comedy
The Knack ... and How to Get It (1965; rentable).
Expresso Bongo (1959; Kanopy, rentable): What was the nightclub scene really like in this era? Get a closer look in this vintage satire of the London music industry.
"The Trial of Christine Keeler" (2019; HBO Max): This BBC limited series has been praised for offering the first dramatization of the Profumo affair (which prefigured the Jeffrey Epstein scandal) from the point of view of the women involved.