Last Night in Soho (2021)
When the past lets you in, the truth will come out.
British filmmaker Edgar Wright, Baby Driver (2017), ditches the comedy to embrace a purer form of genre filmmaking with Last Night in Soho, a stylish and menacing little ghost story. Except it’s not the ghost story we think we’re getting, which has left some punters a little disappointed. Me, I’m here for it; Wright is a brilliant comic director, perhaps the best of his generation, but comedy can be a crutch, and it was thankfully inevitable that a director of his caliber would explore less forgiving material.
Cornish wannabe fashion designer Eloise “Ellie” Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) loves the music and aesthetic of the swinging ‘60s, but her dreams of a fabulous time studying at the London School of Fashion are much more fun than the reality of catty social games orchestrated by her bullying roommate Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen) and almost complete social isolation from her hard-partying jaded London yoof classmates (except for nice guy John, played by Michael Ajao). But Ellie’s dreams of Soho’s swinging heyday are more than mere nighttime subconscious ephemera; it seems that Ellie is really projecting herself back in time to witness the life of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), an aspiring nightclub singer who comes under the wing of slick teddy boy hustler Jack (Matt Smith). As Ellie’s dreams of the 60s unfold, it becomes clear that Sandie is being abused and forced into prostitution by Jack, and Ellie feels compelled to try and save this doomed girl who, in all likelihood, went to her grave over 50 years ago.
Last Night in Soho plays with the notion that Ellie might be cracking up. It’s eventually revealed that her own mother died by suicide and had a less-than-successful sojourn in London in her own youth, but we also see Ellie having visions of her, and to canny genre fans that doesn’t say “Undiagnosed psychological issues” but rather “latent psychic unaware of her powers” so, of course, when Ellie thrusts herself into Soho she’s going to be particularly sensitive to any bad hoodoo residue hanging about the place. In its way, Last Night in Soho is a haunted house story, but the entire neighborhood is the traditional horror fiction “bad place,” and only Ellie can see it.
Wright makes a good fist of this sort of psychogeographic ghost story, reaching deep into his bag of visual tricks to bring ‘60s Soho to life — the first time Ellie steps through the veil and into London Past is an absolute banger and one of my favorite cinematic images of the past 12 months. Later, he gets good mileage out of reflections and windows, doors and portals, pairing images of Ellie and Sandie, blurring them, refracting and inverting them. Is Ellie Sandie’s reincarnation? Is Sandie Ellie’s mother? The film offers up a number of possibilities as we gradually winnow our way to the actual truth, a process that slowly erodes away the barriers between past and present. Even the supporting cast, which includes Diana Rigg, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), as Ellie’s landlady and Terence Stamp, The Limey (1999), as a shady local who may have first-hand knowledge of Sandie’s fate, contribute to the feeling: icons of the ‘60s haunting the streets of 21st century Soho long after their time is done.
It’s the main cast that sells the thing, though. Thomasin McKenzie, Jojo Rabbit (2019), is extraordinary and achingly vulnerable as country mouse Ellie, such a naif that the quotidian threats of life in the big city seem more than enough without any supernatural elements to up the danger. Anya Taylor-Joy, The Queen’s Gambit (2020), is tasked with a tougher job, which is to bring inner life to a character who is, if not all surface, then accustomed to presenting a very polished exterior and not letting much show through. Sandie is an ideal and symbol as well as a person, and that’s as much for Ellie as the men who prey upon her — Ellie’s job in the film is really to get past the superficial layers of the past — the clothes, the hair, the music, the glamour — and see the real past, and in turn see Sandie as a real person. It’s a sharp look at the soft trap of nostalgia.
I am, to be fair, a sucker for this sort of urban ghost story where the supernatural is rooted in the geographical and temporal and feels like a result of city living rather than an intrusion from without. It’s why I’m a John Constantine/Hellblazer fan, and in point of fact, I did spend a bit of time watching Last Night in Soho wondering what Edgar Wright would do with Liverpool’s greatest magician given the material currently on display. I’d hesitate to call it an instant classic, but I will say that Last Night in Soho is a worthy addition to the canon of British ghost stories: a haunting, wry meditation on memory, identity, and nostalgia.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson