In an early scene of Edgar Wright’s wickedly entertaining Last Night in Soho, British screen veteran Rita Tushingham, playing the protagonist’s doting grandmother, Peggy, reminisces about the excitement, the music and the fashions of London in the Swinging ’60s. If your film knowledge of the period goes back far enough, you might find yourself thinking not only of Tushingham’s signature role in a classic of kitchen-sink realism, A Taste of Honey, but of her strolling down Carnaby Street with Lynn Redgrave singing the title song of Smashing Time, a kitschy guilty pleasure from 1967.
Tushingham, along with Terence Stamp and Diana Rigg — the latter in a glorious swan song that marks her final film appearance before her death last fall — provide poignant links, affectionate gestures from Wright toward an era in British cinema he clearly adores. (The simple dedication, “For Diana,” is lovely.) Not to mention a bounty of choice needle drops. But familiarity with that time, its screen icons and its chart hits is not a requirement of this Focus Features release. Young audiences will groove equally on the time-travel thriller as it spirals into bloody horror, even if they’ve never heard of The Knack… and How to Get It.
Last Night in Soho
Nostalgia that draws blood.
Wright at his best is an adrenalized storyteller with a gleeful spirit that hurtles you along like a dizzying carnival ride. As in films like Baby Driver, he understands the visceral thrills for moviegoers of dynamic camerawork, editing and music cues, plus the visual bang of color and design. But he never lets all the virtuosic craft contributions overwhelm the core ingredients of plot and character. There’s an infectious sense here of a filmmaker having a cracking good time, winking back to his own feature origins in Shaun of the Dead with a bunch of zombified skeeves in Establishment gray suits. If that already sounds like more than you want to know, take this as a warning to stop reading.
The movie opens on a giddy high with a winsome Thomasin McKenzie as Eloise Cooper, dancing exuberantly around her bedroom in present-day Cornwall to vocal duo Peter and Gordon’s 1964 hit, “A World Without Love,” while rocking a fabulous pleated newsprint gown of her own design. Orphaned as a child and raised by her grandmother, Eloise is obsessed with the ’60s; posters of Twiggy and of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s adorn her walls, and she treasures the family’s vintage vinyl collection. The soundtrack, which mainlines female artists like Dusty Springfield, Cilla Black, Sandie Shaw and Petula Clark, along with the guys, is retro heaven, even if it favors chartbusters over deep cuts.
When Eloise is accepted into the London College of Fashion, Peggy sends her off with her blessing, but reminds her granddaughter to proceed with caution; the capital proved too much for her mother (Aimee Cassettari). With swift economy, Wright and co-scripter Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917) indicate that visions of her late mother have weighed on Eloise’s mental health, with later disclosures referencing a history of schizophrenia in the family. More than once, she’s warned, “London can be a lot.”
When student housing proves a poor fit, thanks to monstrously selfish and overconfident roommate Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen) and her posse of mean girls, Eloise rents an upstairs room from Ms. Collins (Rigg), a stern but not unfriendly working-class landlady who long ago was a cleaner in the building. “If I could live anywhere at all, it would be London in the ’60s,” Eloise tells her. But timid young women with little voices and big imaginations like Eloise should be careful what they wish for in an Edgar Wright movie.
The schizophrenia mention is something of a tease — or is it? — in a screenplay that plays constantly with reflections and mirrors, positioning Eloise as an imperiled Alice in a Through the Looking-Glass riff with escalating slasher and sexual-predation elements.
Bathed in the predominantly red neon glow of the signage outside her bedroom window, Eloise pulls the sheets over her head to sleep and drifts back in time in dreams that become increasingly dark and alarmingly real. She steps out into the glittering lights of Piccadilly Circus when 007 entry Thunderball is beckoning moviegoers and the Café de Paris is the place to be seen. Down the velvet-lined stairs of that club she goes, transformed in the mirror from mousy Eloise to aspiring singer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a sensual vision in pastel-pink chiffon with a blond backcombed ‘do. Is Eloise becoming Sandie or merely observing her? Wright keeps blurring the line.
Declaring that she’s going to be the next singing sensation to wow the sophisticated Café de Paris crowd, Sandie demonstrates her sinuous moves on the dance floor to a fun, funky electric organ piece by composer Steven Prince, whose score elsewhere gradually builds from ominous suspense into all-out Grand Guignol horror. Sandie is charmed by an influential “agent,” Jack (Matt Smith, at his most sinisterly seductive), but early warning signs tip off both her and Eloise that her singing career might not be his top priority.
Wright makes dazzling use of production designer Marcus Rowland’s evocative sets and costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux’s fashion-forward outfits in the ’60s interludes. These are frequently given an otherworldly glow by the violent reds and blues that bleed through the dominant night scenes in the hypnotic visuals of ace Korean cinematographer Chung-Hoon Chung (The Handmaiden, It). But the director also plays fast and loose with period, notably in one postmodern performance piece.
That takes place on the stage of the seedy Rialto Revue Theatre, where a vocalist billed as Marionetta (neo-burlesque star Jeanie Wishes) covers Sandie Shaw’s “Puppet on a String,” while a chorus of provocative dancers in lacy scanties gets the leering male crowd all lathered up. One of those dancers is Taylor-Joy’s Sandie, who appears to see her dreams of legitimate stardom evaporate during the course of the song. Likewise Eloise, watching disconsolately from the audience.
As Wright and editor Paul Machliss zig and zag with dexterous vitality between the two eras, Eloise finds inspiration for her first design attempts at school, acquires a sensitive friend with a gentle romantic interest in fellow student John (Michael Ajao) and gets part-time work tending bar in Soho pub The Toucan. One of the regulars there is a mysterious silver-haired gent (Stamp), who keeps popping up on the streets, seeming to recognize Eloise, especially once she goes blond to emulate Sandie.
The lines separating past and present begin to dissolve as Sandie’s fate takes an ugly turn. In Nightmare on Elm Street style, Eloise starts to fear going to sleep at night and becoming immersed once again in that increasingly violent world. But before long, the sinister forces dragging Sandie down begin to infiltrate Eloise’s daylight hours too, prompting her to investigate a terrifying incident she witnesses and figure out what really happened all those years ago in her room at Ms. Collins’ place.
As he showed recently even working within the entirely different frame of a music documentary with The Sparks Brothers, Wright is masterful at shaking up rhythms and visual textures to keep the senses stimulated beyond basic narrative engagement. Last Night in Soho is an immensely pleasurable film that delights in playing with genre, morphing from time-travel fantasy to dark fairy tale, from mystery to nightmarish horror in a climax that owes as much to ’60s Brit fright fare as to more contemporary mind-benders.
None of this would work, however, without two absolutely compelling leads, playing flip-side personalities whose parallel vulnerabilities ultimately collide. The two women mirror the contrasts of Soho, between its red-light district heyday and its gentrified present-day image of streets lined with upscale private arts clubs, restaurants and media haunts.
While bright talent McKenzie (so memorable in Leave No Trace) is underused in another Venice premiere, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, she’s enchanting in the larger of the two roles here, with Eloise’s innocence and fragility evolving to reveal surprising strength. And there’s genuine pathos in the descent from soigné poise and self-possession of Taylor-Joy’s Sandie, eventually reduced from commanding coquette to broken doll. Or at least that’s what we’re led to believe. Nobody is likely looking to Wright for probing commentary on gender inequality, but the brutalizing effect of sexual commodification on an initially in-control young woman who walks into a room and owns it gives the thriller a welcome note of melancholy.
That aspect is nicely foreshadowed in Taylor-Joy’s ethereal rendition of Petula Clark’s “Downtown” at an audition — both breezy and strangely haunted. “The lights are much brighter there,” she sings, with what she perhaps already knows is a false sense of security. “You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares, so go downtown.”