Directors are often commended for exposing a subject’s seedy underbelly, but it was brightness and wish-fulfilment that were the radical elements in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Rather than culminating as expected with the murder of the actor Sharon Tate and the curdling of the 1960s, the film took a detour into a happier parallel universe.
Tarantino is thanked in the end credits of Last Night in Soho (he suggested its title, borrowed from the 1968 song by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich), though Edgar Wright’s film charts a more conventional course through the 1960s. Who knew that the era’s shimmering pop dream was built on sexual violence and exploitation?
Not Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), a 21st-century student obsessed with the period, yet somehow not obsessed enough to have sought out films such as Blow-Up, The Pleasure Girls and The Party’s Over, which even at the time warned that Swinging London was hanging by its neck.
Newly arrived from Cornwall at the London College of Fashion, Eloise swaps her student halls – where she can’t hear her Kinks albums over thudding dance music – for a musty garret where male visitors are forbidden. If only the timid young woman knew she were in a movie, she would be ecstatic to see screen legends from her favourite decade wherever she looked. Not only is her landlady Diana Rigg (in her final role), but Rita Tushingham is her grandmother, and Terence Stamp the leonine, white-maned local who growls: “I make it my business to know all the pretty girls round ’ere.”
It is after dark when the past crashes vividly into Eloise’s life. Once she pulls the blankets over her head, she plunges back in time to 1965 (the year Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, one of the film’s main influences, was released) to inhabit intermittently the body of an aspiring singer. This is Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), recently fallen in with a sleazy agent (Matt Smith) who promises to make her the next Cilla Black. In a clinch with him at the Café de Paris, Sandie glances in the mirror, but it is Eloise’s reflection that we see staring back. The next morning, it is Eloise also who has a love bite on her neck.
She gets the same peroxide dye job as Sandie, and starts basing her fashion designs on Sandie’s outfits. But as she learns more about how the older woman was preyed on, Eloise is visited by the ghosts of Sandie’s abusers, perhaps even her killers, looming and leering in their Y-fronts.
What is happening here is hard to say. Tell me that characters are travelling magically back through time (as in Celine and Julie Go Boating) or being possessed by another personality (The Tenant) or undergoing a prolonged psychotic episode (Repulsion) and I’ll happily believe you. Vacillate between all three, as Last Night in Soho does, and it will look as though you’re hedging your bets. Wright craves the gnomic privileges available to David Lynch (whose Mulholland Drive is another influence) but he is also trying to make a crowd-pleaser, not realising that the two are mutually exclusive.
His screenplay, co-written with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, is full of pieces that don’t quite fit. We are shown a smoke alarm being disabled, but when a fire occurs later, it’s in a different building. (If that was meant to be a red herring, it’s more a pale pink.) The ghost of Eloise’s mother, who killed herself years earlier, leaves only a feeble impression – wouldn’t it have been wiser to make her the exploited wannabe? And while it’s nice to see a female lead from a director whose previous movies (such as Shaun of the Dead and Baby Driver) have been overwhelmingly male, it’s dismaying that Eloise’s time is largely spent running away from cinema’s least scary ghosts.
Not as dismaying as the ending, though. When the big reveal finally arrives, the killer hasn’t been cornered or blackmailed, isn’t in danger of being caught, isn’t even a suspect. Then why confess? Because the film is nearly finished.
Visually and musically, everything operates at a level of plush overkill; the palette of the cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung can be summed up here as “anything so long as it’s neon”. But even the prettiest pictures need a wall to hang them on. And though Eloise is warned several times that “London can be a lot”, Last Night in Soho isn’t nearly enough.
“Last Night in Soho” is in cinemas from 29 October
This article appears in the 27 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Our Fragile Future