Director: Edgar Wright
Cast: Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, Diana Rigg
Words – Rhiannon Topham.
Listen, we all feel a bit of nostalgia for bygone eras from time to time. Judging by the current mode of dress and cultural zeitgeist, for many this manifests as a love of all things 90s, a not-too-distant past when ‘things’ were just ‘better’. For Eloise ‘Ellie’ Turner (Thomasin McKenzie), the protagonist of Edgar Wright’s latest Last Night in Soho, everything about London in the 1960s—the music, the fashion, and presumably the romanticisation of living in relative squalor—is a tonic for the overwhelming nature of modern life.
When she moves to London to study fashion just like her late mother and pursue her dreams of becoming a designer, Ellie is still wide-eyed and naive, despite repeated warnings about how London can be, frankly, a bit much. Given her gift (or curse) for seeing and feeling the emotions of the dead, her grandmother rightly worries that living in a city with a seedy story attached to nearly every street might be a struggle. Nevertheless, she moves into her university halls, only to encounter instant friction with her roommate and fellow students, instantly becoming the subject of ridicule from a stereotypically-Mean Girl tribe of her peers. So, with her heart still in the past and her head in some grey area on the space-time continuum, London fails to meet her fairytale expectations and after being there for less than a week she looks for a new place to live.
This brings her to the doorstep of Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg), and the cosy little bedsit on the top floor of her terraced home. It’s like a time capsule of 60s residential modesty, and of course Ellie is hooked. Every night when she goes to sleep, she transports to the swinging 60s and slips into the spirit of Sandy, a young singer and dancer with dreams of becoming the next Cilla Black. The magic of her nocturnal expeditions soon wears off when Sandy’s new beau (Matt Smith), like London itself, turns out to be something that his handsome facade does not suggest. The initial promise of basking in the glamour of Soho nightclubs and making it as a singer crumbles pretty quickly when Sandy is pimped out, revealing the hidden seediness between the walls seeped in cigarette smoke and slick with old man sweat.
That’s all I’m going to say about the plot. What I will highlight as a particular triumph is the demonstration of how spaces are intrinsic to memories and can become characters within themselves. Wright shows that what happens in finite spaces such as underground drinking holes where Ellie encounters the tormented ghosts of London’s past, or way above ground in her bedsit, may not be as prominent as the landmarks and flashy billboards lining Leicester Square but are just as claustrophobic. The only difference is that outside is the heaving body count of the living, but inside are the trapped souls of a horde of apparitions.
However, a fundamental flaw is that it ruins the big plot twist through its repetitiveness. Certain scenes seem almost smug in the way they try to drop hints about how the story will end by repeating the same kind of action we’ve just seen but in a different place, and with a new set of people either not believing what Ellie is saying or treating her with kid gloves or just generally giving her the ‘ick’, lingering slightly too long on specific props or details in a way that says “REMEMBER THIS, IT’S IMPORTANT”. By the time we reach the big reveal, not enough has been said about the ill treatment of women, toxic men, the sex industry and who ‘deserves’ what in life to save the narrative from feeling pretty tonally flat. It’s not enough to look pretty and sound cool if your handling of such heavy subjects as grief, sexism and mental illness gets lost in the doting homage and is veiled with a goofy humour that is particularly mocking of young people today.