This film is being screened as part of the 2021 BFI London Film Festival and you can find all of our coverage of the festival here.
Edgar Wright’s bold return to cinema is a gripping and stylish tale of nostalgia, laced with haunting revelations and the unspoken grim reality of the not-so-swingin’ sixties.
Eloise Turner (played by Thomasin McKenzie, Jojo Rabbit) lives and breathes the sixties. A quick glance at her record collection shows the likes of The Kinks, Cilla Black, Nancy Sinatra and, of course, The Beatles. Her name, courtesy of her late mother, even derives from Barry Ryan’s hit. “If I could live any place and any time, I’d live here. London in the sixties,” she dreams. “It must have felt like the centre of the universe.” But, as she would soon come to discover, her fantasy is far from the truth.
Music isn’t the only thing that draws Ellie to this particular decade. An aspiring fashion designer, the sixties is a clear influence on the way she looks and dresses. It comes as no surprise that she sets off from sunny Cornwall to become a fashion student at the University of Arts London. Her first horror story begins with a cruel, bully of a roommate, and so she promptly decides to move to 8 Goodge Street; a house so eerie and sinister it could be a character in itself.
When she first moves, the house isn’t quite as dramatic. The room is grand and better than what any history-obsessed student could wish for, with the neon reflection of the Italian bistro sign next door illuminating the walls with an ominous, atmospheric blue and red light. Ellie is in love. Another old record helps her drift off for her first good night’s sleep since her arrival in London. She is pulled back into the sixties as per usual—but this time quite literally so.
In one of her best performances yet, Anya Taylor-Joy (The VVitch) is truly captivating as Sandie, a beautiful young woman who dreams of performing on the most prestigious stages in Soho. In a twist of fate that can only be too good to be true, she wows the very man she believes has the ability to help her, Jack (played by Matt Smith, Doctor Who). Eloise lives as Sandie in her dreams. She feels her excitement, delight, and lust, but also endures her pain. Though she first longs for the escape into her hallucinations, the more harrowing Sandie’s life becomes, the more vivid and far more terrifying Eloise’s visions appear.
If you can see past Matt Smith’s odd, cockney accent, the three leads mix surprisingly well. Eloise longs to save Sandie from her hell; Jack effortlessly keeps her locked within it; and, though they never communicate in the present world, the terror the mere vision of Jack leaves on Eloise is just the same for us as it is for her.
Undoubtedly, the style of the film will have been the first thing to catch the eye of many. It certainly managed to paint an elegant image of Soho, with a gritty reality shadowed by the bright lights. Some scenes, including one dance number, were also so flawlessly made, they were a sharp reminder of why Wright’s work is and will continue to be so universally adored. As stunning as it could be, however, there were moments the effects and editing crossed the line of artistically impressive into gimmicky.
The script itself, without giving too much away, is full of mystery and isn’t a story to be forgotten easily—the long nights of sixties Soho being far more grim than glamorous. That being said, it does tend to lose its way at times. It remains gripping throughout, yet the focus of its heavy plot is never fully realised.
Last Night in Soho is the most daring and important film Edgar Wright has made to date. Its script might not be polished to perfection, but it is still one of the best thrillers of the year. Though much different from the comedic pictures we’re used to seeing from the director, the slick and stylish imagery, the retro soundtrack, and an exceptional cast easily put it above all his other films.
Words by Libby Briggs
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