Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more
News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.
► Last Night in Soho is in UK cinemas now.
Louis CK once pointed out in a routine that the only people who could truly use a time machine to travel into the past would be white heterosexual men. Time travel for any other group would involve a loss of freedom and an increase in danger. And yet our culture is obsessed with nostalgic recreations of decades, particularly the 80s, the 70s and the 60s. There is a constant hankering for the past, but it is a foreign country, a pre-#MeToo world which might be a delightful prospect for certain comedians, but not for a large section of the population.
Watching Edgar Wright’s new film Last Night in Soho, this routine sprang to mind. The film is about the dangers of nostalgia, even as it revels in it: the ghosts you can raise and the zombies that still lumber on into the present day, refusing to die. Thomasin McKenzie stars as Eloise, or Ellie, a young woman who leaves Cornwall for the delights and dangers of the Big Smoke to study to be a fashion designer. She is obsessed with the 60s, the fashion and the music, but haunted by the ghost of her mother, who took her life. She’s further haunted by a worry that these apparitions might indicate that she inherited her mother’s mental health struggles.
Modern student life proves uncongenial. Ellie has little in common with her fellow students and they think her a bit odd, so she moves into an old house in Fitzrovia, north of Soho (leave aside for a moment the science fiction of an affordable bedsit in central London). Here, she begins to experience vivid visions of the past, embodying a young woman Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy) who is trying to break into show business. At first these dreams are delicious fantasies which have Ellie turning down a date with a fellow student in order to rush home, crank up her vinyl collection and lose herself in the London of the Swinging 60s.
As Tarantino did with Los Angeles in Once upon a Time in Hollywood, Wright and his production designer Marcus Rowland delight in recreating an immersive 360-degree version of 60s London. A huge billboard for Thunderball (1965) has Sean Connery glowering down at a street full of vintage cars when they were new and nightclubs where the men wore sharp suits and the girls beautiful dresses, while everyone smoked and Cilla Black sang live. Other ghosts from the 60s live on in the casting, with Rita Tushingham as Ellie’s grandmother, Avenger Diana Rigg as Ellie’s landlady and Terence Stamp stalking past in a camel-hair coat.
However, the fantasy turns into a nightmare as Sandy takes up with a manager, Jack (Matt Smith), who promises to make her a star but then leads her into a life of sexual exploitation and abuse. The past begins to bleed into Ellie’s waking life as Sandy’s life becomes more and more intolerable, and the men who abused Sandy haunt her, their faces a horrible blur. It is a testament to Thomasin McKenzie’s performance that she manages to maintain a lightness while at the same time suggesting a woman who could also be slipping into madness. As she tells her grandmother before leaving for London, she’s a scrapper.
Last Night in Soho has the energy of a Jacques Demy musical, with a cavalcade of period hits and musical sequences, including a breathtaking a cappella performance of ‘Downtown’ and a thrilling dance scene that has Sandy and Ellie swap places as Jack spins them across the floor. Mixed in are references to George Romero, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) and 10 Rillington Place (1971). Wright has created a fascinating melange, a mix tape of different genres, light and dark, pop and profound. It has the exhilaration of an old fairground ride, where there’s always a risk that the rackety contraption might fly to pieces. But somehow Wright and co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns manage to hold things together, even as they spin faster and faster.
The past might be idealised but it isn’t as if the present is perfect. On arriving in London, Ellie is harassed by a taxi driver whose patter quickly turns threatening. The appeal of the past is partly to escape the feeling that, as Blur once told us, modern life is rubbish. But if, as Freud argued, nightmares can be disguised fantasies, so it makes sense that fantasies can also hide nightmares. Wright’s film reminds us that the past may have looked and sounded great, but it had bad breath and a dangerous temper.
10 great films set in Soho
Sin, sleaze and swing hold sway in these evocative movies set in and around Soho.
By Neil Mitchell
Originally published: 29 October 2021