Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho is both a love letter to the allure of the Swinging Sixties and a cautionary tale about the corruption beneath.
When Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) moves to London to pursue her dream of becoming a fashion designer, she’s unprepared for life in student accommodation. As a wallflower who would rather curl up with her blanket and her collection of vinyl than party all night, she manages to secure herself a top-floor bedsit on Goodge Street.
Each night, bathed in the tricolour neon of the neighbouring bistro, Eloise is transported back to 1965. She finds herself the unseen companion of Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy), an aspiring singer, confidently charting a course through the glamorous Soho nightlife.
Eloise is enraptured and empowered, but what starts as “Goodnight, Sweetheart”-style wish fulfilment, changes into something uglier. As Sandy discovers the city’s seedy underbelly, the ghosts of Soho begin bleeding through to Eloise’s present.
Eloise’s arrival in the past is a marvel of VFX in the service of storytelling. As Sandy elegantly makes her descent into the Café de Paris in her pink tent dress, Eloise, still in her night clothes, follows her along the mirrored wall. When Sandy dances for the first time with the debonair Jack (Matt Smith), she and Eloise become one.
DP Chung Chung-hoon transforms Soho into a neon wonderland,1 but the style only goes so deep. Wright has always had a love of genre filmmaking, perhaps mores than any other British director working today, but there’s an unmistakeable air of pastiche in his work.
Last Night in Soho employs a number of iconic Sixties actors to memorable effect – the late Diana Rigg in her last film role as Eloise’s landlady, Terence Stamp as the sinister Silver-Haired Gentleman, Rita Tushingham as Eloise’s adoring grandmother – but the film can’t manage much beyond evocation. As it veers into Giallo territory, and Eloise, on the verge of breakdown, searches for the truth, Last Night in Soho feels like standard fare, albeit impeccably well-made.
An early scene where Sandy, impossibly poised and beautiful, performs Petula Clarkson’s Downtown to an empty nightclub, is genuine, shiver-your-spine cinema, but the film never gives us enough substance in its exploration of exploitation and the danger of chasing your dreams.
In warning about superficiality, Last Night in Soho falls into the trap itself, but it’s a gilded cage that’s worth 116 minutes of your time.
Last Night in Soho is due for release in the UK on October 29th, 2021