Dir: Edgar Wright. Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Thomasin McKenzie, Matt Smith, Terence Stamp
1960s Soho is brought to life brilliantly in Edgar Wright’s new psychological thriller (which premieres this weekend in the Venice Film Festival out of competition). Wright whisks his audience back into the heart of Swinging London, a period when James Bond movie Thunderball has just been released, singers like Cilla Black and Petula Clark are in the charts, and Carnaby Street is bustling with energy. Would-be singer Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy) has just arrived in town. She is blonde, beautiful and with the voice and talent to match her ambitions. Jack (Matt Smith) is the handsome but roguish talent manager she meets by chance and who looks as if he can guide her to the top.
Taylor-Joy (the chess prodigy from The Queen’s Gambit) is perfect for her role. She oozes charisma and star quality. Her performance of “Downtown” is spine-tingling. Wright captures both the exhilaration of the era and its darker, seedier side: the misogyny and sexual violence.
The Sixties interludes, though, are only one part of Last Night in Soho. The story is also set in the present day – and unfortunately the contemporary scenes are nowhere near as vivid as those from half a century ago.
As the film starts, Sixties-obsessed Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) has just been accepted for a fashion course in London. She is a “country mouse” from Cornwall but can’t wait to get to the big city. Her mother died when she was seven and she has been brought up by her gran (played by Rita Tusingham, one of the many Sixties faces in the film).
Eloise is talented and ambitious but very diffident. The other students, especially her malevolent roommate Jocasta (Synnove Karlsen) mock her for naiveté. She soon flees student halls and gets a room in a bedsit on Goodge Street. Her landlady is the mysterious Miss Collins (the late Diana Rigg, in one of her final screen roles). Somehow, from her room on the top floor, Eloise can time travel back to the 1960s. It’s as if she is playing a VR game and Taylor-Joy’s Sandy is her avatar.
Back in the present day, Eloise gets her hair done so that she looks like Sandy’s double. She initially seems to be flourishing. However, dark events she witnesses in the Sixties have a knock-on effect on her life in London. She is very highly strung, still clearly affected by the death of her mother and struggling to adjust to her new life. She gets a job in an Irish pub off Soho Square but is intimidated by one of the customers, an old-timer (Terence Stamp) she suspects may have been a pimp and a killer back in the Sixties. One kindly fellow student (Michael Ajao) falls for her but she doesn’t know how to react to his advances.
Cinephiles and music lovers alike will find moments to relish here. Wright throws in references to Michael Powell’s notorious thriller Peeping Tom and to Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy among other films. As Eloise’s mental state deteriorates, she can even be seen as a contemporary equivalent to Catherine Deneuve undergoing a breakdown in her apartment in Repulsion (1965).
The soundtrack is full of Sixties favourites. Wright directs with his familiar energy and introduces some comic elements involving the ever nastier and more jealous Jocasta. He also elicits a slyly sinister performance from Terence Stamp and a suitably creepy one from Rigg.
Nonetheless, this is an uneven film with an awkward, cumbersome narrative structure. It is hard not to wish Wright had made an entire film set in the Soho of the Sixties rather than one that pays tribute to it through the prism of the present day. It is a pity, too, that the magnificent Taylor-Joy’s role wasn’t further foregrounded.