Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in the ’60s, to escape from reality, as Queen might have written had they seen this film. It seems fitting to plunder a song to review Edgar Wright’s new film, Last Night in Soho, for the director drenches us with a cascade of tunes as we are plunged into London’s Soho circa 1965.
But before Wright turns back the clock, the film opens in contemporary Cornwall as Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), all wide eyed and porcelain skinned like an adorable doll, dances around her house in a cocktail dress made of newspapers. This sweet little thing lives with her gran (Rita Tushingham), her mum having committed suicide when Eloise was a child. She’s about to head to London to study at the London College of Fashion, but gran is concerned about her mental wellbeing, what with her having visions of her dead mum and everything.
Off Eloise goes, only to discover just how scary a place London can be: the cabbie hits on her; her roommate and cohorts are pretentious bitches; everybody is partying and ruining her sleep. So she packs her bags and moves into a bedsit in Goodge Place owned by an elderly woman (Diana Rigg) who won’t tolerate gentlemen callers. It is when she sleeps in the bedsit that Eloise is transported into the past, specifically the past experienced by former tenant Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy).
Sandie is everything Eloise isn’t: glamorous, flirtatious, worldly, a man magnet. When Eloise enters this world still wearing her pyjamas, she is transported to a London of her imagination, where Cilla Black is singing in a club, where Thunderball is showing at the cinema, where women float in chiffon and besuited men light your cigarette and help you out of your cloak. These scenes are exhilarating fun as the camera shifts from Eloise’s point of view and back. It’s like a crazy hall of mirrors filled with extras in fabulous period outfits. And when Sandie meets Jack (Matt Smith) a complex dance scene between him, Sandie and Eloise ensues.
Jack literally sweeps Sandie off her feet, but is he really her champion? She wants to be a singer, so he takes her to the Rialto club for an audition. Each night, as Eloise follows in Sandie’s footsteps, she is shown a Soho whose glittering veneer is gradually peeled off, revealing the grittier and more dangerous place lurking beneath. And as Sandie’s life begins to unravel, so does Eloise’s mental health.
How on earth could this poor student afford to live in Goodge Place and wear vintage Biba, you cry – well, the heroine has found a part-time job as a barmaid in Soho. And in that basement bar is a handsome elderly regular punter (Terence Stamp). When he sees Eloise with her new blonde tresses, he recalls the likeness. As Eloise gets to learn more about Jack, so her suspicions about her customer mount.
This film is both great fun and utterly ridiculous. Whether Eloise is in the real world or one entirely of her own making is irrelevant. If you were to pick the script apart – from the depiction of the students to the cabbie to Eloise’s hapless detective skills (not to mention her designer ones), plus an improbably nice love interest – you’d find plenty to complain about. Although Last Night in Soho is just so-so both in terms of reality and as a musical psychological thriller, the three leads are highly watchable. Yet the real stars of the film are the music and the evocation of a London that we recognise not from archive footage but from the movies. Seeing Terence Stamp, Rita Tushinham and the late Rigg here only compounds this notion of the sexy city as viewed via the big screen. Petula Clark’s Downtown is sung repeatedly, those lyrics sitting comfortably with the story. For a couple of hours ‘we can forget all our troubles, forget all our cares’ and enjoy the nonsense while listening to all those great ’60s tunes in the company of some beautiful people from the past and present.