Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce
Is it fantasy? Mystery? Time travel? Yes, yes, yes, all these things and so much more. Edgar Wright’s 2021 thriller Last Night in Soho is now streaming on HBO Max, and if you’re a fan of any of those genres, Anya Taylor-Joy, or the British Invasion, catch it now. New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie plays Eloise Turner, a 1960s-obsessed aspiring fashion designer from Cornwall, off to study in the Big City. Her gran is concerned that Ellie will be “overwhelmed” by London—thinly veiled code for Ellie’s propensity to see ghosts and her mum’s own troubled history of mental illness. Ellie, as it turns out, is overwhelmed—by dorm life and Mean Girls who pick on her small-town style and big city goals. So she sets off on her own, renting a charming, renovated bedsit (studio apartment) from strict landlady Diana Rigg in her final film role.
Ellie’s big city adventure soon takes a fantastical turn, as her new apartment opens a portal to the 1960s London of Ellie’s dreams. Her mirror reflection takes on the appearance of Anya Taylor-Joy’s Sandie, and it’s not long before we realize that Ellie is literally walking in Sandie’s footsteps, reliving her own Big City ambitions, sixty years ago. Sandie has dreams of making it big as the next Cilla Black or Petula Clark. She charms manager Jack (ex-Doctor Who’s Matt Smith), who gets her a gig singing backup at a nightclub. Smith blends right into the era.
And that’s when the fantasy takes a nightmarish turn. Sandie’s dreams are not all they’re cracked up to be, and Ellie begins seeing specters of the past in her present. Something sinister is lurking in the Goodge Street bedsit, and as Sandie’s life spirals out of control, Ellie starts to lose control of reality. Is she dreaming? Traveling in time? Hallucinating?
Part Tom’s Midnight Garden, part Life on Mars, and part Dead Again, Last Night in Soho is a brilliant vehicle for its stellar acting troupe. Anya Taylor-Joy is perfectly cast as the magnetic Sandie; she owns the room in every role she plays, and visually this will remind viewers of the similarly-set The Queen’s Gambit. The art direction is equally compelling, with stylish sets and interiors reminiscent of Edward Hopper paintings, and the trippy cinematography By Chung-hoon Chung perfectly conjures both the psychedelic ‘60s and Ellie’s disorienting trips through time. Like Wright’s earlier Baby Driver, Last Night in Soho utilizes a worldbuilding pop music score that would seem heavy handed from any other director. Viewers will have fun picking out familiar tunes they had no idea were remakes of ‘60s hits.
Wright deftly balances two very modern yet different eras, and offers a thrilling glimpse at the lives of young women trying to make names for themselves. Young star Thomasin McKenzie has no problem carrying a story weighted with the powerhouse cast of Diana Rigg (in a stellar role capping off decades of brilliant performances), the distinguished Terence Stamp, Smith, and Taylor-Joy, creating a role that is as authentic and sympathetic as it is nuanced. Keep an eye out for a few other actresses you might spot from their 1960s films: Rita Tushingham, who famously played the little girl in Doctor Zhivago (and she’s been acting ever since), and Goldfinger and A Hard Day’s Night actress Margaret Nolan as a bartender.
Costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux (See How They Run, The Bank Job, Doctor Who) is in an enviable and unique position in this film. Her own designs get to be integrated into the story as the lead character’s fashion designs as she improves and settles in on her own style by film’s end. She also creates a memorable dress audiences won’t soon forget for Taylor-Joy.
The movie was filmed in 2019, but only made it to U.S. theaters last winter.
Stylish, spooky, and altogether mesmerizing, don’t miss Last Night in Soho streaming now on HBO Max.