Edgar Wright’s love for vintage music has been more apparent than ever from his last few films, more recently in his documentary The Sparks Brothers and prior to that, the thumpingly cool caper Baby Driver. But music is also put to expert use in his earlier comedies. I’m sure many (like myself) still associate Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” with Shaun of the Dead and his new film, Last Night In Soho, was guaranteed to carry that torch of iconicity. With the best British Invasion soundtrack since The Boat That Rocked (or Pirate Radio, for filthy Americans) this film had my footsies dancing from the minute it started.
Eloise or “Ellie” (Thomasin McKenzie) is a little different to other girls but not in a Pick Me way that sends eyes rolling (that girl is yet to be introduced but her name is Jocasta and she’s a right slag.) Prancing around her Grandmother’s house in a newspaper dress she designed and made herself, you’d be forgiven for thinking the film was set in a different time. She listens to Petula Clark and Cilla Black and covers her walls with posters of Twiggy and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Her Gran, Peggy (60s Liverpudlian starlet Rita Tushingam), informs her excitedly that the post is here. The two await the response from London to see if Ellie has gotten into a prestigious Arts school to study fashion and I faintly hear “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” in my head as she jumps for joy at the acceptance.
Ellie’s trip to London is dampened slightly by a sexually inappropriate taxi driver and a group of classmates who clearly don’t like her. Like Cady Heron on her first day of school, Ellie has to blatantly lie to her Gran over the phone upon meeting her dorm mate Jocasta and her gang of Yes women. “Were people nice?” – “No.” “Did you make any friends?” – “Yeah” works here, too. The pain in her voice when she describes her dorm room as “nice and modern” to Peggy, like she’s swallowing her own regurgitant at the oxymoron, perfectly captures the sentiment of someone extraordinary who just wants to assimilate with the basic bitches. Fleeing her shared bedroom when bitchface brings a boy home, Ellie sits in a doona cocoon on the common room couch, listening to “granny music” on her Beats by Dre headphones as a party swirls around her. It takes her less than two days to move out and the new crib is much more her style.
An antique townhouse owned by a cranky old lady is just the ticket for Ellie. Its creaking stairs and dusty air would frighten some, but Ellie finds comfort in its vintage bones and inspiration for her fashion classes. Her landlady is Ms Collins (powerhouse Diana Rigg in her final role), the stern old woman with whom Ellie bonds over the common ground of 60s songstresses and not having a social life. To Ms Collins’ surprise, Ellie loves her new bedroom and its decor. But Ellie will soon find out that something not very nice happened up there that paints the past with a less favourable palette.
Edgar Wright told audiences who saw advanced screenings to keep their mouths shut in reviewing the film as he didn’t want it spoiled for everyone else. Last Night In Soho is primarily a mystery so this would be a fair request were it not for the revealing nature of trailers these days. I saw the trailer every time I went to a film (weekly if not more) over the past month and felt overly familiar with the plot upon finally seeing the feature. If you’ve seen it you know that Ellie turns into someone else in her dreams – a confident young woman with aspirations of stardom named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy in a triple threat role that establishes her reign as the ‘it’ girl of this generation.) She gets transported to her favourite time period but also discovers the darker side of the phrase “vintage style, not vintage values.”
From the trailer I expected a Murder Mystery Midnight In Paris and that’s not far off. Ellie initially gets lost in the splendour of being in her favourite era and can’t wait to get back there every night when she falls asleep. Her experience is soured when it turns out to be different than she’d hoped (a bit like London itself) and she falls down the rabbit hole of murder, exploitation and a desperation to save Sandie from a fate that has already happened.
Ellie’s proclivity to always be looking back manifests itself in something else – an ability to see her mother’s ghost. We glean from the get-go that Ellie’s mother falls into the Casper category of phantoms, appearing in the mirror in Ellie’s little self pep talks as an encouragement to be bold and live life unconfined. But there’s a darkness lingering in the shadows of Ellie’s mind because of the way her mother died. “She wasn’t well….mentally” Ellie tells her intrusive frenemies on the first day of school and the hereditary seeds for facing disbelief later on are sown.
The film is beautifully shot by versatile cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, whose history with nasties (Oldboy, Three Extremes, Thirst) took a lighter path with the likes of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. He also knows how to shoot mystery, keeping us bewildered and intrigued in Park Chan Wook’s sumptuous The Handmaiden, so his colourful CV seems perfect for this film. There are hints of giallo in a neon-soaked murder scene but some choices made here are out of his hands and don’t quite fit with the rest of the aesthetic. There is a little too much reliance on CGI and this beautifully crafted murder scene features the kind of fake splatter you see in B-grade slasher movies made specifically for 3D releases. A colourful, hallucinogenic trip later in the story becomes a little too fantastical which, while stunning to look at, doesn’t match the tone of the scene in which it’s used.
In categorising Last Night In Soho as a murder mystery I can’t help but make comparisons to Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. The difference is that in Soho we seemingly know who the victim is and who the killer is. The mystery comes from us being wrong but not from any fault in our own deductive skills. We are given obvious red herrings and attempts to dead-end certain plotlines and are later told “just kidding”. Knives Out removes the question of who the killer is in the first act (the author in the attic with a knife) and the mystery comes from the intricate web of personal decisions from multiple characters, making the finale thrilling because of cleverly laid out details rather than a Big Reveal. For me the distinction is quite large between these two films – one works and one, despite being charismatic and engaging, kind of doesn’t.
Despite its flaws, Last Night In Soho is a hugely fun time at the cinema with a phenomenal soundtrack that strengthens its threads. A mystery horror for the Time’s Up era, it’s a lovely showcase for its two leads (Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy are both very, very good) and doesn’t betray the sisterhood built between them – time be damned. 7/10.
Last Night In Soho is out November 18.