“If I could live any place, at any time,” the wide-eyed young woman says, dreamily, “I’d live in London in the 1960s. It must have been the center of the universe!” Her name is Eloise — call her Ellie — and she’s just moved from Cornwall to good ol’ Blighty circa right now. It’s a much different metropolis today than it was back when Carnaby Street was the epicenter of chic couture, Cilla Black was crooning about that cad Alfie Elkins, and everyone hung out at the 100 Club and the Marquee. In the 21st century, London is just another crowded jumble of streets dotted with Starbucks and people on their cell phones. Ah, but in the Sixties? It was swinging, baby! And though this country mouse, who’s come to the city to study fashion, finds so much inspiration in the clothes, the music, the sheer Soho-a-go-go vibe of that bygone era, what Ellie really wants is to travel back in time. If only she could zip up those vinyl knee-high boots, throw on a Quant miniskirt and truly traipse down Kings Road with the hippest of the mod-Brit hip.
Later, after Ellie has been given glimpses of what the Sixties scene was actually like for females at the time, and begins to suspect that the bedsit she’s renting is home to some very bad mojo, the young woman tentatively asks her octogenarian landlord Ms. Collins if there might have been … a murder in her upstairs room. The older lady rolls her eyes. “This is London,” she tells the youngster. “There’s been a murder in every room in every building on every corner of this city.”
Those two exchanges tell you everything you need to know about Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, a be-careful-what-you-wish-for cautionary tale in the form of a psychological thriller and a reminder to take off those rose-colored glasses when yearning for yesteryear. Well, not “everything” you need to know — there are several mysteries in need of solving, as well as the question of what exactly is happening to our hero when she lays her head down to dream and if she’s in the middle of a mental breakdown. But those dual statements lay out the polar perspectives at play in the most concise and upfront manner possible. You can pine for a Technicolor past in which everything seemed so much more vibrant, vital, groundbreaking and earthshaking. And you can be haunted by it, especially when the reality so brutally counteracts the myth and the casualties of the past refuse to go gently into the night.
As played by the extraordinary Thomasin Mckenzie (Leave No Trace, Jojo Rabbit), Ellie is already a bit of a nervous bird when we meet her; it’s gently hinted that she may also have a sensitivity to picking up on paranormal activities as well. The university newbie doesn’t fit in with her fellow students, and torment from her dormitory’s cabal of mean girls suggests she’s already one quivering lip away from losing it before she sees that post about a room to rent in nearby Soho. Thankfully, the kindly Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg) and a job at a local pub give her some stability.
Then one evening, Ellie closes her eyes to sleep, and inexplicably finds herself walking down a long, narrow alleyway. When she emerges, it is 1965 — the bright lights of Coventry Street, the sounds of ring-a-ding orchestral pop, the two-story-tall poster for Thunderball. Venturing further through the looking glass, Ellie waltzes in to the Cafe de Paris and encounters a stunning woman named Sandy (The Queen’s Gambit‘s Anya Taylor-Joy, so perfectly in sync with the look of the era that she might be a lost Shrimpton sister). She’s everything that Ellie isn’t: poised, glamorous, confident, blonde. But if the reflections of all of those mirrors around the club are to be believed, she’s also who Ellie is — a dream-world avatar who allows the present-day student to step into her high heels. Both of them get to shimmy and frug on the dance floor, get to drink and flirt, get to make out with the handsome rogue-around-town Jack (Matt Smith). Soon, Ellie finds herself eagerly awaiting these after-hours REM-cycle sojourns. And then things begin to detour into much darker, possibly supernatural and far more sordid territory… .
That mirror trick, by the way — in which Mckenzie trails or mimics Taylor-Joy’s movements in reflective surfaces, and vice versa — is the sort of nightmare inversion of an old Marx brothers gag that doubles as a good example of how much imagination he infuses to his genre mash-ups. He’s a filmmaker who loves a good, or even a semi-good stylistic flourish, and brings a surplus of chops, cleverness and giddy fanboy enthusiasm to his projects; what is Baby Driver but a formalist’s feature-length experiment at fusing needle-drops and endless car chases? (Answer: A blast!) And Wright gives you such a heady, intoxicating recreation of that historical U.K. cultural kaboom that even when he and cowriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns pull the rug out from under viewers, you can still feel the pull of those Sixties sequences. They don’t just stand in contrast to the scenes of Mckenzie playing detective and slowly losing her sanity — the sheer energy in those flashbacks, even when the grooviness curdles into the grotesque, overshadows the modern-day bits to the point of making them feel almost sluggish by comparison.
That’s not a knock against Mckenzie, who proves to be a first-rate scream queen and a keen observer of where desire and vulnerability meet, or against Rigg, who gets the grande-dame victory lap she deserved. (Or even against Michael Ajao, stuck playing the drippy male equivalent of every movie girlfriend given little more to do than utter “what’s wrong?!”) It’s more that, for a movie that so beautifully critiques nostalgia with such venom, Last Night in Soho comes perilously close to wallowing in it at times. Wright casts not just Rigg but also Rita Tushingham as Ellie’s grandmother and Terence Stamp as a mysterious pub patron. It’s a lovely hat tip to three former Swinging Sixties “It” celebrities/icons, and one that also sends a slightly mixed message in regards to the way homages can be just another way of giving the past a lot of prime real estate. He borrows beaucoup elements from the age’s horror cinema as well, dropping in touches of Giallo and old-school British scarefests; the faceless ghosts that come to represent what happened to Sandy could have been lifted from an Amicus Productions anthology. There’s a very cake-and-it-too approach to the way the movie takes a straight razor to the collective romanticizing of Swinging Sixties London. It wants to tear back the mask of liberation, freedom, good times and great outfits. But it’s not immune to the charms of the past, either. It hasn’t quite shaken the feeling of intoxication around even the more toxic elements of the era.
The temptation is to wish that Wright had simply made a horror movie set in the Sixties, that he’d streamlined things a tad more and simply kept his revisionist look at the Carnaby-and-cocktails glamorous life in that bygone moment. But he’s after something a little bigger, and if Last Night in Soho comes across as being stuck in a tonal interzone, you have to admire how Wright is so intent on drawing a line between then and now. The way that a line like “such a lovely name” is turned into a mantra of sleaze and menace doesn’t stop at the Sixties. There is still a creepy predator around every big-city corner, and not just in London. A club like the Rialto may now be the Siam Blossom massage parlor, but both are selling something and one of them is far more honest about it. A certain strain of horribleness and exploitation are a constant, even in the center of the universe. Only the hemlines and lapel sizes have changed.