Nostalgia, the saying goes, ain’t what it used to be. In realms ranging from the political to the pandemical to the personal, the urge to Make Things Great Again is increasingly tempered with the realization that maybe Things Weren’t Really That Great to begin with. (This, in turn, seems to stiffen the backs of those with an emotional or financial interest in looking backwards, but I digress…)
The director Edgar Wright has made a fine career out of playing on some measure of nostalgia, at least the cinematic sort that rewards audiences (and, often, his characters) for being familiar with the tropes and genres of movies past. He burst onto the scene with Shaun of the Dead, a comedic riff on zombie films, followed by Hot Fuzz, a comedic riff on British crime thrillers. His most recent effort, The Sparks Brothers, looks back at the career of an eccentric pop duo. Wright understands the pull of the past.
All of which gives his new film, Last Night in Soho, a depth it might otherwise lack. Oddly, considering that its protagonist is a young, female, aspiring fashion designer, this is Wright’s most personal film, and arguably his best. It offers a thought-provoking critique of rose-colored rearview mirrors, while simultaneously spinning a visually and narratively clever yarn that will have you on the edge of your seat.
The story begins, as all tales of nostalgia must, in the present day. Teenaged Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) moves from her small hometown, where she lives with her grandmother (Rita Tushingham), to London in order to attend a fashion design academy. Eloise is obsessed with the style and glamour of mid-60s London, an era when the city was the epitome of global cool. (It’s also an era that was ably and entertainingly chronicled in Portland author and former film critic Shawn Levy’s book Ready, Steady, Go!, which was an inspiration for the filmmakers and, apparently, Eloise, since it appears from an early scene that she owns a copy herself.)
Quickly disaffected by both dormitory life and her snobbish classmates, Eloise seeks out quieter lodgings and finds an upstairs room to let in Soho. Her landlady (the dearly departed Diana Rigg) sets strict rules about male visitors, which only enhances the retro feel of the place. Almost immediately, however, Eloise begins to, it seems, dream herself back into the bygone era she fetishizes, somehow inhabiting the body of an aspiring nightclub singer named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy of The Queen’s Gambit).
From there, Last Night on Soho runs on dual tracks. As Eloise explores her present-day neighborhood, getting a job as a barkeep and encountering a mysterious older man (Terence Stamp), she returns to Sandie’s world as the glamorous, confident young woman encounters various obstacles in her quest for stardom, among them a skeezy promoter played by erstwhile Doctor Who Matt Smith.
This is one of those films where the director pleads with critics not to reveal any spoilers, which tells you right away that some unexpected twists are in store as the connections between the present and the past are slowly revealed. Let’s just say that what starts as a fantasy eventually becomes more of a horror story.
Although it’s the magnetic, cat-eyed visage of Taylor-Joy that dominates the marketing for Last Night in Soho, it’s McKenzie who has the tougher job, one she completely pulls off. The New Zealand-born actress previously impressed in the Portland-shot Leave No Trace, and she’s even better here in a role that evolves dramatically depending on the decade she’s in. This isn’t a knock against Taylor-Joy, who nicely captures the vulnerability beneath Sandie’s veneer of ambition.
The real treat, though, cast-wise, is the presence of three veterans of the very cultural scene Wright is referencing.
Rigg, of course, gained fame as Emma Peel of The Avengers (no, not those Avengers) and as the first woman James Bond really fell for, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (eat your heart out, Lea Seydoux). She remained a paragon of cheeky dignity for decades, including a memorable role on Game of Thrones. This is a fitting final role for the icon, who died in October 2020.
Stamp was an equally hip and enigmatic presence in 1960s Britain, as much for his off-screen relationships (Brigitte Bardot, Julie Christie, Jean Shrimpton) as his reserved, vaguely sinister performances in offbeat films such as Poor Cow, The Collector, and Teorema. He memorably played General Zod in 1981’s Superman II, then languished in relative obscurity until Steven Soderbergh wrote the lead role in 1999’s The Limey.
Less celebrated today, Tushingham is perhaps the most apt piece of retro casting. At eighteen (the same age as McKenzie when Last Night in Soho was shot), she made her film debut in 1961’s A Taste of Honey, a gritty, “kitchen-sink” drama that featured a (then-taboo) interracial kiss. In 1966’s The Knack, an emblematic, misogynist sex comedy set in swinging London, she won raves for her portrayal of the male characters’ object of desire. And in 1969’s pitch-black farce The Bed Sitting Room, she plays a pregnant woman wandering through a post-apocalyptic London after a brief but devastating nuclear war. In other words, Tushingham’s 1960s output and persona, while not as chic or zeitgeisty as Rigg’s or Stamp’s, hinted (sometimes strongly) at the dark side of the era, the disturbing stuff that went on in the back alleys of Carnaby Street.
And that’s what Wright wants us to realize with Last Night in Soho. Scrubbing the sheen of fantasy off would be simple enough, but he manages to do so without coming across as a scold. Yes, those were wonderful times, with a zest, freedom, and creativity that continue to echo today. They were also, despite all that, no paradise, certainly not for those unlucky enough to remain outside the power structures of the day. In that, the 1960s in London were just like almost any other decade in any other city you could name. Both things can be true, and looking back with clear eyes enables us to appreciate what was special without maniacally (and futilely) trying to replicate it today.
(Opens Thursday, October 29, at area theaters.)