Last Night in Soho 2021

“It’s not what you imagine, London,” says Rita Tushingham in this deliciously twisted love letter to Britain’s cinematic pop-culture past. Director and co-writer Edgar Wright, whose CV runs from the rural action-comedy Hot Fuzz to the recent dramatic music doc The Sparks Brothers, has cheekily described Last Night in Soho as “Peeping Tom’s Midnight Garden”, a mashup of seedy Soho nostalgia and melancholy magic. Making superb use of its West End and Fitzrovia locations, and boasting a cast that includes Terence Stamp (cutting a silhouette that weirdly recalls William Hartnell’s Doctor Who) and Diana Rigg in her final role, it’s a head-spinning fable that twists from finger-snapping retro fun to giallo-esque slasher fantasy as it dances through streets paved not with gold but with glitter, grit and splashes of stabby gore.

Thomasin McKenzie, who dazzled in Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, is Eloise Turner, a wide-eyed, 60s-obsessed fashion student with a “gift” that leaves her haunted by Don’t Look Now-style visions of her dead mother. Having earned a place at the London College of Fashion, “Ellie” finds herself in a top-floor bedsit from whence she is nightly transported back into the capital’s swinging past through the ghostly mirrored-life of wannabe singer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). In her dreams, Ellie (who says the 60s “speak to me”) both watches and becomes Sandie, aiming for the stars but falling to the streets as the meat-hook realities of London life hit home. Is Sandie a figment of Ellie’s overheated imagination – a wish-fulfilment turned into a nightmare - or has she somehow made a genuine connection across generations?

The line “London can be a lot” recurs throughout the script, co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Oscar nominated for 1917), and the same could be said of the film. Some viewers may find themselves overwhelmed or under-enthused by the dizzying blizzard of interlinking themes, references and motifs thrown at the screen. Yet anyone who shares Wright’s frenetic enthusiasm for this movie-literate milieu will thrill to the sheer exhilaration of Ellie’s early flashbacks, as the director leads us from darkened streets to shining cinema marquees (the poster for Thunderball never looked better!) and then down into the heady world of the Café de Paris.

From the jukebox combat of Shaun of the Dead, through the Sex Bob-Omb songs of Scott Pilgrim vs the World, to the choreographed car chases of Baby Driver, Wright’s movies have always teetered on the brink of becoming musicals. Here, that promise is consummated in a film that starts with Ellie dancing in her Redruth bedroom to A World Without Love, moves to Sandie and Jack (a superbly slimy Matt Smith) twisting the London night away to the sounds of the Graham Bond Organisation, and then features an empty-theatre a cappella rendition of Downtown that is as eerie as it is evocative.

Like a gorgeous melody that drifts almost imperceptibly off key before descending into screaming discord, so Last Night in Soho slips seamlessly between harmony and dissonance, with nods to Julie Christie in Darling mutating into evocations of Jessica Harper in Suspiria. As always, Wright’s jukebox antenna is sharply attuned, not least in a scene that capitalises upon the weirdly Herrmannesque violin stabs of Cilla’s You’re My World, which becomes a brilliantly contrapuntal backdrop to fiery violence – murder most musical.

“It’s still the same old London underneath,” says a predatory cabbie when Ellie first arrives in the Smoke, a connection enhanced by the Mona Lisa vibe of some scenes, providing a neo-noir link between the past and the present. Elsewhere, there are nightmarish nods to John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (dreams within dreams) and George Romero’s beloved zombie movies, although it’s arguably the homegrown ghost of Nigel Kneale that casts the longest shadow. For all its scattershot reference points, however, Last Night in Soho still emerges as Wright’s most personal film – you can feel how much he loves the material. Frankly, I felt the same way.

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