“Last Night in Soho,” the new film from director Edgar Wright, now playing in theatres, is a love letter to London’s Swingin’ Sixties by way of Italian Giallo. Surreal and vibrant, it is uneven and more than a little bit silly, but enjoyable for those with a taste for both Petula Clarke and murder.
When we first meet Cornish teenager Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) she’s dressed head-to-toe in a throwback newspaper print dress of her own design, dancing to Peter and Gordon’s 1964 hit, “A World Without Love.” Several dramatic dance moves later, she makes her way down to her grandmother’s (Rita Tushingham) main floor and a letter announcing she’s been accepted to fashion school in London.
“London is not what you think it is,” granny warns. “It can be a lot.”
Eloise doesn’t heed the warning. She is obsessed with London, specifically the magical period when Julie Christie wore Mary Quant and Carnaby Street was the fashion capital of the world. “If I could live anywhere, I’d live in Soho in the sixties,” Eloise gushes. “It must have felt like the center of the universe.”
Unfortunately, London, as exciting as it is, doesn’t greet Eloise with open arms. At school her mean girl roommate makes life miserable to the point where Ellie moves out, renting a rundown bedsit in Soho from eccentric landlady Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg).
Falling asleep on her first night in the new digs, she is transported back to the glamorous world of the 1960s. “Thunderball” is at the movies, Cilla Black sings at Soho’s Cafe De Paris and the streets of are alive with people like Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a wannabe singer with a great wardrobe and aspirations to stardom. Over time Eloise finds herself drawn into Sandie’s world, the world she had long dreamed about, but are these visions dreams, nightmares or dangerous manifestations of the ghosts that haunt every corner of old London town?
“Last Night in Soho” begins with verve, painting a picture of a time and place that is irresistible. A mosaic of music, fashion and evocative set decoration, the first hour brings inventive world building and stunning imagery. Wright pulls out all the stops, making visual connections between his film and the movies of the era he’s portraying and even including sixties British icons Rigg, Tushingham and Stamp in the cast.
A dance sequence that swaps out Eloise for Sandie at every twirl is exuberant, breathtaking in its choreography and an early indication that the two characters will be intertwined for the remainder of the story.
The first half is glorious fun but takes a very dark turn.
As Eloise becomes immersed in Sandie’s life, she peers beneath Soho’s dazzling veneer to see the dark underbelly of London’s nightlife. Wright changes tone, introducing horror and psychological elements. The two halves fit together like puzzle pieces, dovetailing into one another naturally despite the shift in ambience.
“Last Night in Soho” could use more character development in its lead characters, but the chemistry between McKenzie and Taylor-Joy as two sides of the same coin, is electric. Wright uses those characters to explore the misogyny that colors Sandie’s life, wringing horror out of the treatment she receives at the hands of her manager/pimp Jack (Matt Smith). The scares, which out me in the mind of Hammer Horror and “Repulsion,” are eye catching and effective, leading up to a surprising finale.
“Last Night in Soho” is more than the sum of its influences. They abound, but filtered through Wright’s sensibility become an enjoyable ride through a part of town and time that no longer exists.