From its promotional profile, you could think “Last Night In Soho” might just be elemental Giallo-bait, a super-duper simulacrum of psychological thrillers past with a troubled young woman in perpetual peril to bloody result. Edgar Wright’s sixth fiction feature, written with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (“1917”), elevates its play with plot U-turns and Wright’s to-be-expected knowing genre bits and bobs. Eloise Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) comes to London to study to be a fashion designer, following her late mother’s path in the 1960s world which Eloise adores. Grandma (Rita Tushingham) is concerned as she leaves the countryside: “I worry you’ll get all overwhelmed again.”
But Eloise insists: “It must have felt like the center of the universe.” Her dreams and nightmares range from vulgar, bullying female classmates to visions of a 1960s singer-supernova, Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), who herself has dreams, dreams of rising effortlessly to stardom at nightclub Café de Paris. Visions that subsume the sleep of a troubled young woman in a tatty London flat? That evokes Polanski’s “Repulsion” (1965), but the blend of troubled personalities that become a single blonde live wire also evokes Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” (1966). Let the swinging sixties commence. (With a taste of a Kieslowskian “Double Life of Eloise” that never was.) As shot by South Korea’s virtuosic Chung-hoon Chung (“Oldboy,” “The Handmaiden,” “It”), “Last Night in Soho” blends the feel of the modern day and the soundstage, of dream and artifice. The color schemes and decors evoke Powell-Pressburger’s “The Red Shoes” (1948) and Michael Powell’s London terror “Peeping Tom” (1960): so much movie madness in the Big Smoke.
There’s witty dialogue and cool costuming, but also appealingly brutal stuff, including a particular nasty, even distasteful turn that will bloom into a gloriously gratifying turn of events. (There are twenty-eight credited songs, duh, including an a cappella “Downtown” by Taylor-Joy.) Mirrors shine and break and reflect: there is a match of gaze between Eloise and Sandie on first meeting through a mirror that offers proper swoon, and Eloise’s controlled, controlling landlady (Diana Rigg) observes, “We all pay for broken mirrors, dear.” Between blocks of end credits, there are punchy flash-frames of late-night modern London streets and alleyways, emptied: a place dreamt and for dreaming still. (Wright shot these after completing the rest of the movie, during lockdown.) With Michael Ajao, Matt Smith and the growling, regal beauty of Terence Stamp at eighty-three as an aged Soho roue.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.