Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver (2017) was a notable departure from comedy for the writer-director, and the result was an absolute delight: a joyous explosion of energy, music, colour, and humanity. Now, in Wright’s first movie since (though he also made the 2021 documentary The Sparks Brothers), he turns to much darker material for a film every bit as compelling and imaginative as its predecessor.
Not that Last Night in Soho begins in darkness. When we meet Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) in the first scene, dancing around her bedroom in a ballgown made of newspaper and fantasising about fame and success as a fashion designer, the mood is buoyant and affectionate—very Baby Driver, in fact. The realisation that Ellie’s still having visions of her dead mother (Aimee Cassettari) does nothing to dampen it, and the news she’s been accepted into the London College of Fashion appears to be setting up a country-girl-in-the-big-city scenario.
The first hint there might be something creepier in-store comes from a slimy cab driver (Colin Mace) who unsubtly and persistently hits on Ellie as he takes her from Paddington Station to her student accommodation in Soho. Still, the original impression that this is to be a fish-out-of-water film—one of several effective misdirections—seems confirmed once Ellie meets her new roommate, Jocasta (Synnove Karlsen), a snobbish, snickering type who can’t resist oneupmanship even when the conversation turns to family deaths.
Soon enough, however, Ellie’s life—and the movie—heads in an unexpected direction when she decides she can’t stand any more of Jocasta, and rents a room in a large house nearby from Ms Collins (Diana Rigg in her final screen role). It’s here that Ellie first has a peculiarly vivid dream of London in 1965, perfect in every detail—with Thunderball playing at the cinema, Typhoo Tea advertised on the side of a bus, and focused particularly on another young blonde woman called Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy).
In the inconsistent way of dreams, Ellie seems to be Sandie at times and to be watching her at others, as the Swinging London blonde tries to talk her way into a musical career—she could be the next Cilla Black, she insists—and is taken up by Jack (Matt Smith), a slick and maybe over-friendly fellow who claims to manage singers. Needless to say, Jack isn’t all he seems, as neither is ’60s London—a period Ellie’s long dreamed of and is now dreaming of a bit too intensely for comfort. And that’s not to mention Lindsay (Terence Stamp), an elderly gentleman in modern-day London who could be stalking Ellie. Nicknamed ‘Handsy’ because he can’t keep them off women, he’s only one of a series of predatory men—starting with the aforementioned cabbie–in Last Night in Soho, and on the face of it this is a #MeToo movie. (Or perhaps a #HerToo or #ThemToo movie, as although Ellie’s not spared unwelcome male attention, it’s Sandie in the 1960s who really suffers from it). The scary thing about these predators isn’t their individual actions but their sheer numbers, brought home visually and vividly in some of the film’s most memorable sequences.
But it’s even more than that. It is also a haunted house movie—perhaps not the first genre that springs to mind as you’re watching it, but it ticks all the genre’s boxes. And, most importantly, I think, it’s very much a London film in the literary tradition of writers like Patrick Hamilton, Peter Ackroyd, and Iain Sinclair—who have sought to expose the sinister depths beneath the city’s surface, sometimes even suggesting the place itself has a kind of malevolence.
It’s no coincidence Last Night is set almost entirely in Soho, an area that was once a byword for sex and sin (and thus exploitation) but has now been almost completely gentrified and corporatised. Appearances may have changed, the movie’s saying, but all the old iniquity is still there. Evil persists in a neighbourhood just as it does in a haunted house. Nor, probably, is it accidental that the eventual explanation for some of Ellie’s 1960s dreams inverts the crimes of Jack the Ripper, the embodiment of violence against women in London.
There are other ideas running through Last Night in Soho, as well—for example, the possibility that Ellie’s trying to relive the youth of her dead mother, and a reminder that sexual liberation in the 1960s was often much more to men’s advantage than women’s. Indeed, the film perhaps bites off more than it can chew, though more in narrative terms than in thematic ones: characters like Ellie’s new boyfriend John (Michael Ajao), or indeed Stamp’s Lindsay/Handsy, are developed just enough to pique the audience’s interest but not enough to totally satisfy. We don’t feel like we ever get to know Sandie, either. She’s more a personification of Ellie’s idea of 1960s young womanhood, rather than a person.
But consistently fine acting goes a long way toward making up for this. McKenzie is easily up to the standard of her terrific work in Leave No Trace (2018), Jojo Rabbit (2019), and True History of the Kelly Gang (2019), and her Ellie convinces completely, being perky but unassuming. McKenzie’s performance is subtly very physical, repeatedly given nuance by small movements (pleasure and pride when she examines a hickey in the mirror, anticipation mixed with anxiety as she tries to get to sleep and back to her 1960s dream).
Taylor-Joy as Sandie is stiller and more composed but resembles McKenzie just enough to imply the notion of her as an earlier version. There’s skillful camerawork around the frequent changes in dream perspective from Sandie to Ellie and back again, much of it involving mirrors, reinforces this.
Rigg and Stamp are perfect, too; the latter especially playing a recognisable Soho-type. The casting of these 1960s names is richly appropriate, of course. Smith’s Jack is suitably smooth and patently untrustworthy, and if he doesn’t give much depth to the character, that’s possibly deliberate. In smaller roles, Ajao delivers an intriguing John who’s quiet and sensitive without being stereotyped; it’s his flashes of exuberance that make him real. Rita Tushingham is also memorable as Ellie’s grandma back in Cornwall, as is Pauline McLynn (Father Ted) as the landlady of a pub where Ellie works. This real public house in Soho, the Toucan, gets enough exposure to embarrass the staunchest defender of product placement.
Superb photography by Chung-hoon Chung, as well as the production design and VFX, show off not only the cast but the Soho locations to great advantage. Moments where the barrier between the past and reality breaks down are especially well done. One, with her and John in her bedroom on Halloween night, is genuinely terrifying. Pervasive shades of red also underline the significance of blood, fire, and the red light district. A variegated soundtrack including The Kinks, Cilla Black, Sandie Shaw, and Siouxsie and the Banshees adds yet further life to a movie that, despite the prominence of the dead, already bursts with it.
There are a few misjudgments: two incidents (one involving Lindsay and a car, another Ellie and a cup of tea) aren’t the surprises they ought to be; Ellie’s visit to a police station doesn’t ring true; and an apparently key bit of information given to her by Lindsay is difficult to understand at the time. But, for the most part, Last Night in Soho hangs together well, and unlike too many horror films the creativity isn’t all in the set-up, as it’s sustained until the final revelations.
“I don’t think Wimpys exist anymore,” says Ellie’s gran, referring to the burger bars that seemed so modern in 1960s England. But though many people share her assumption, she’s wrong, because they do. If intentional rather than an oversight, this is one of the first indications in the film that however much we believe we’ve left it behind, the past remains with us, waiting to be discovered in odd corners and obscure byways. And Last Night in Soho really hits home in conveying that idea, with all its potent implications, so powerfully at the same time as it tells the more specific stories of two individual young women in two different eras.
Neither concern overshadows the other; we care about Ellie (and to a lesser extent Sandie) as an individual, while also understanding how they fit into bigger patterns of women, violence, and Soho. And while the movie certainly asserts the importance of the past, Last Night in Soho equally insists that it does not dictate the present. Characters may feel trapped by what has gone before, but in the end, they do have agency, and despite its many grim aspects, Wright’s dazzling movie is every bit as humanist as Baby Driver.
UK | 2021 | 116 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Edgar Wright.
writers: Edgar Wright & Krysty Wilson-Cairns (story by Edgar Wright).
starring: Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, Diana Rigg & Terence Stamp.