Mixing glorious pastiche and gory ghost story, director Edgar Wright’s “Last Night in Soho” will stand as one of the best London movies of the new decade.
That’s probably because, while it enjoys the present-day (or at least pre-pandemic) bustle of Soho, it positively revels in the area’s charismatically seedy past and its still-palpable legacy.
Much like his mentor, Quentin Tarantino, who gets a thanks in the closing credits but to whom the excellent soundtrack choices also owe a huge debt, Wright creates a faithful yet playful homage to a lost and legendary Swinging ’60s London that is hard to find these days but whose spirit remains vibrantly alive in movies, documentaries, photos, stories, a few buildings and, of course, hundreds of songs.
Since the current COVID-19 pandemic practically emptied Soho of its restaurants, nightlife and office workers (many British film production companies included), one might regard even the contemporary strands of the time-toggling narrative as some kind of ghost story; anyone who strolled its streets during the recent lockdowns can tell you of its chillingly sad silence, as if the heart of London had stopped beating.
So it’s a pleasure watching it re-animate and come alive again, at least in this much-delayed release. In the modern storyline, Thomasin McKenzie plays young student Eloise Turner, who is accepted into the London School of Fashion, keen yet wary of what happened to her late mother in the big city many years before. As her Gran (played by 1960s social-realist star Rita Tushingham) warns her: “London can be a lot.”
Arriving from rural Cornwall, Ellie, who is obsessed with all things 1960s, even carries a classic Dansette record player as hand luggage. But her eccentric, old-fashioned ways mean student halls are too bitchy for her, and she eventually takes lodgings in a dingy room just north of Soho, at the top of a creaky house run by mysterious landlady Mrs. Collins. The old lady is played by the late Diana Rigg, in what turned out to be the iconic star of “The Avengers” (the ’60s telly series, not the Marvel movies, dummy) and former Bond girl’s last role before her death almost exactly one year ago. See, the movies really do keep the ghosts alive.
This attic room, filled with the waft of garlic from the old French bistro next door, gives sensitive Ellie visions of a particular past inhabitant, glamorous wannabe showgirl Sandie, played with a brittle star quality by Anya Taylor-Joy. Like Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” Wright romanticizes the bright lights of Soho as Ellie finds herself connected in her dreams with the story of Sandie and her attempts to make it as a cabaret singer on the Soho scene.
On a breathless night out at the Cafe de Paris, Sandie meets wide-boy manager Jack (Matt Smith) who gets her an audition at the insalubrious Rialto club, for which she does a breathy rendition of Petula Clark’s “Downtown” — you know, where the neon lights are are much brighter and you can always go, and all that.
Initially, the story of Sandie in which Ellie inserts herself, flashes back only in her dreams and becomes the inspiration for her first-year fashion project at college, much to her tutor’s admiration and encouragement. But the deeper Ellie goes in her psycho-geographical explorations, the more dangerous and creepy the real story of Sandie becomes, as she’s drawn into the infamous Soho underworld of spivs and leering gentlemen, and Ellie’s dreams transform into waking nightmares, pulling her beneath London’s modern surface to scratch at the sordid past.
Wright — taking another, more irritating, leaf from Tarantino’s book — requested on social media before the out-of-competition world-premiere screening at Venice on Saturday night, that reviewers don’t reveal too much about the dual storylines and leave viewers, like fresh-faced Ellie herself, to discover the worlds for themselves upon the film’s October U.S. and U.K. releases.
So I will restrict myself to saying that, while I was worried Wright might lose control of an excellent premise, this is by far the director’s best film since his “Shaun of the Dead” debut, using a soundtrack of The Kinks, Walker Brothers, Cilla Black and Dusty Springfield (among many other rarer cuts, such as the Graham Bond Organisation and James Ray) to propel us on a hugely enjoyable, campy and stylish, yet genuinely scary path that also touches on mental health issues, sexual predators and the demons of creativity.
But mainly it’s about Soho and the layers of grimy history on every street corner of such an area of such a storied city, where echoes still reverberate down its alleys, in its basement drinking dens and in its die-hard denizens. Watch out for one particular swinging-London screen icon who practically embodies the time and the place.
“Last Night in Soho” — the title is taken from a song by those Tarantino soundtrack favorites Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich — is rich enough and entertaining enough as a spectacle on it own merits, anchored by excellent work from its two young leads, who should attract new audiences perhaps unfamiliar with the place and the genre. Never mind the stale garlic, beer and cigarette smoke; you can practically smell the ghosts of great ’60s London films like Ken Hughes’ “The Small World of Sammy Lee,” John Schlesinger’s “Darling” and Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion.”
But it’s as a tribute to what makes cities so alluring and so dangerous that perhaps Wright’s film succeeds most, becoming like one of the stories it’s so in thrall to, something that can ensure the myths, the dirty pink glamour, and the edgy romance of Soho’s sleazy nocturnal dreams will survive to inspire and haunt another generation.
“Last Night in Soho” opens in U.S. theaters Oct. 22.