At the outset, “Last Night in Soho” (2021, dir. Edgar Wright) appears to be a sunny valentine to the city of London and its most famous “moment”: the 1960s. Eloise “Ellie” Turner (Thomasin McKenzie, “Leave No Trace”) is an introverted but gifted, aspiring fashion designer who, though she has been raised by her grandmother (Rita Tushingham, “A Taste of Honey,” “The Leather Boys,” “The Knack”) far from the urban pulse of England’s capital, has grown up obsessed with the music and fashion of the Swinging Sixties.
Perhaps she lives symbolically in the shadow of her dead mother, a once promising young designer herself who committed suicide when Ellie was young. Ominously, Ellie occasionally sees her ghost in mirrors, and though she views her as a protective spirit, she does her best to hide these sightings from her grandmother. Ellie implicitly seems to have some sort of connection to the dead, which may or may not link her to her mother’s tragic demise.
When Ellie wins a scholarship to the London College of Fashion she seems poised to finally achieve her dreams but the reality is much harsher as she experiences the cruelty of modern urban and college life and particularly feels the barbs of her arrogant roommate, Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen). Despite the fact that she also meets cute and likable fellow classmate John (Michael Ajao), Ellie is crestfallen by her early experiences at school and decides to rent a flat off-campus from the stern but seemingly understanding Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg, “The Avengers,” “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” “The Assassination Bureau”) in the neighborhood of Soho, traditionally famous for its nightlife.
During her first night sleeping in the new bed-sit, Ellie dreams and finds herself in the Sixties London of her deepest fantasies, to her surprise experiencing the world through the lens of a young woman named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy, “The Witch,” “Thoroughbreds,” “Emma”) who is eerily also trying to “make it.” Ellie continues to be transported nightly, vicariously experiencing the London of the past through Sandie and her path to seeming stardom as a singer. Ellie discovers a renewed spring in her step and rebounds in her studies and adjustment to urban life.
That is, until she begins to notice discordant warning signs in her dreams that perhaps Sandie and her mysterious story, not only did not end well, but are still around and unresolved, dragging the bloody spirits of the past into a very dangerous and un-romanticized present!
47-year old British filmmaker Edgar Wright is a sort of cinematic chameleon, tailoring his immense talents to whatever suits his current project, from apocalyptic zombie satire (“Shaun of the Dead”) to fast-paced buddy cop free-for-all (“Hot Fuzz”) to music-fueled millennial actioner (“Baby Driver”). In “Last Night in Soho,” Wright’s obsessions, like Ellie’s, are on full display and no doubt he shares many, if not all, of hers. In addition, he fuses the frenetic energy and jazziness of the British New Wave (films such as “A Taste of Honey,” “This Sporting Life,” “Room at the Top,” “The Pumpkin Eater,” “Georgy Girl,” and “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”)—which displayed a poignant and touching concern with human-scale drama—with ghoulish horror. His palette paints from the garish colors of Hammer films of the 50s, 60s, and 70s and the drippingly bloody, ruby-red grand guignol of Italian giallo shockers of a similar period.
The title of “Last Night in Soho” is a reference to the 1968 song by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich (yes, that’s a real band!) whose bombastic and histrionic soundscape seems to act as a sort of spiritual guide for the film. Additionally, Wright lends considerable stature by peopling his landscape with 60s luminaries such as Tushingham, Rigg, and Terence Stamp, who plays a mysterious regular at the pub where Ellie works. Aside from the appealing young leads, praise must be singled out for the late, great Rigg who goes out in fiery fashion in her final film role! (The film is appropriately dedicated “for Diana”.) At times, “Last Night in Soho” feels a bit too all-over-the-place but somehow Wright holds it together, molding his singularly kaleidoscopic creation into something unique and substantial.
Yet, perhaps the real star of Wright’s film is the city of London, itself. Thankfully, and refreshingly, the film side-steps mere hero worship in pursuit of a more fleshed-out portrait of the British capital.
In fact, in spirit, the film reminds me most of the London of Stephen Sondheim’s Victorian-set potboiler musical Sweeney Todd. In the song “No Place Like London,” the jaded title character sneeringly sings that “there’s no place like London” in grandly ascending tones up until the final word “London,” when the notes drop off flatly and unsatisfyingly. Later, Todd responds to the innocent enthusiasm of the sailor Anthony: “You are young/ life has been kind to you/ you… will… learn.” The final phrase is like an ominous warning to the youthfully star-struck of the world—a character like Ellie in “Last Night in Soho,” for example, who does not yet know any better but is about to be introduced to the seedy underbelly of the great city known as London.