Last Night in Soho review – a gaudy romp that’s stupidly enjoyable

Edgar Wright’s time-travel film plays like a 60s pop song building towards a big climax

The nostalgia gauge is code-red on Last Night in Soho, a gaudy time-travel romp that whisks its modern-day heroine to a bygone London that probably never existed outside our fevered cultural imagination. It’s the era of Dusty Springfield and Biba; great music, cool threads. British writer-director Edgar Wright takes a grab-bag of 1960s ingredients, paints them up and makes them dance to his tune. His film is thoroughly silly and stupidly enjoyable. To misquote William Faulkner, the past isn’t dead, it’s propping up the bar at the Café de Paris.

“You like that retro style, huh?” a classmate remarks to Eloise Turner, a 21st-century design student – and you can bet your house she does. Eloise is up from deepest Cornwall to attend the London College of Fashion, still haunted by her mother’s suicide and struggling to find her feet in a city that’s not like the one she expected. Thomasin McKenzie plays her as your classic fairytale ingenue, guileless and wide-eyed, entirely out of her depth. She’s eyeing the future but her feet are stuck in the past.

The 60s provide Eloise with a refuge, literally so, in that each night she slips into the body of the vogueish, vampish Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is confidently billing herself as the next Cilla Black. She’s taking nocturnal whirls of old-time Leicester Square, where the cinema is showing the James Bond film Thunderball.

Eloise, no surprise, is living the dream and loving every minute. But her safe place can’t hold and the magic mirror starts to splinter. The handsome wide boy (Matt Smith) she thought was her saviour turns out to be a pimp and now the predators are circling her table inside the smoke-filled nightclub. In the split glass, still more troublingly, she sees signs that Sandie, her alter-ego, eventually met a bad end.

Edgar Wright, director of Last Night in Soho, which had its premiere at the Venice film festival.
Edgar Wright, director of Last Night in Soho, which had its premiere at the Venice film festival. Photograph: Kate Green/Getty Images for BFI

As Eloise bounds back-and-forth between the decades, Last Night in Soho clears space for some old familiar faces. There’s Rita Tushingham as her gran; Carry On star Margaret Nolan in support. Terence Stamp is the mysterious barfly who may just have the answers, while Diana Rigg plays no-nonsense Miss Collins, who provides rooms to rent. Wright’s film is corny and slight, like a three-minute pop song, which means that it’s corny and slight in the most pleasurable sense; fuelled by a shrill adolescent longing and building towards a big breakthrough or a wanton collapse, whichever strikes its fancy when the final verse comes along.

Eloise’s trip through this theme park starts out bright and frothy before eventually pitching into its hysterical third act, much as we are told the 1960s did themselves. Having begun as a knowing riff on Georgy Girl the film switches costumes to become a bubblegum remake of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, complete with grabbing ghost hands and faceless ghouls in the library. If Sandie was murdered, does that mean that Eloise dies as well? The deeper she digs, the more terrified she becomes. She’s breaking down in her classes; jumping at shadows in the street. Her worst nightmare is coming true. She’s going to wind up like her mum.

“This is London,” brusque Miss Collins tells Eloise. “Someone has died in every room and every building and on every street corner in the city.” And this is surely the case. The capital is built on the bones of the dead. Ghosts from the past infest every nook and cranny. And for all its perky retro-chic and caffeinated histrionics, Last Night in Soho carries an in-built note of poignancy in that it arrives at a time when the cherished 60s poster children – those cocksure angels of the future – are beginning to slip one-by-one off the map. Tushingham and Stamp are still with us, thank heavens. But in the year since shooting finished, Rigg and Nolan have died. Time, in other words, marches on. Wright’s film struts into its premiere at this year’s Venice film festival glossy with new life, still warm from the editing suite and already looking like something of a relic itself.

Contributor

Xan Brooks in Venice

The GuardianTramp

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