Movie Review: The Dark Underbelly of “Swinging” ’60s London — “Last Night in Soho”

With “Last Night in Soho,” Edgar Wright takes us back to the oft-romanticized “Swinging London” of the 1960s for the year’s most striking thriller, another jewel in the crown of star Anya Taylor-Joy, the anime-eyed “It girl” du jour.

It’s a breathtakingly ambitious turn for the director most of us discovered with “Shaun of the Dead,” whose credits also include “Baby Driver” and the recent documentary about the art-rock/pop duo Sparks.

Wright immerses us in the lurid neon-lit fashion, beautiful people and “the music of the traffic in the city” of Petula Clark’s hit of the era, “Downtown,” the cafe society pop sound and scene that was concurrent with the rockers and mods of Beatlemania, the Stones and the Who. He gives us a disturbed, aspiring fashion designer (Thomasin McKenzie of “JoJo Rabbit”), whose dreams take her back to the era she idolizes and the whirlwind life of a would-be singer (Taylor-Joy of “emma.” and “Queen’s Gambit”).

And then, after its captivating stars, intoxicating milieu and supernatural thriller elements have lured you in, Wright reminds you that yes, this is indeed a horror film. “Soho” evolves from Hitchcock and Welles to Dario Argento and Brian DePalma, from psychological thriller to Grand Guignol and its cinematic 1960s offspring, “giallo.”

It becomes the most stylish and upscale horror movie in years.

McKenzie is Eloise, a “country mouse” from Cornwall admitted to UAL, the London College of Fashion at the University of Arts/London. She’s introduced dancing, in a haute couture gown of her own design made of newsprint, dancing and preening to the mirror to the McCartney-written pop hit, “World Without Love.”

Her room is a veritable museum of 1960s London, so much so that it seems she’s a part of it. Then we see the digital clock and cars and realize her vinyl collection was handed down to her from her grandmother (“mod” ’60s starlet Rita Tushingham), whom she’s lived with since her mother died.

Eloise is so retro she’s positively bohemian, compared to her hip, conformist classmates. Which is one reason she moves out of student housing and into a relic of a bed-sit, an upstairs flat in a boarding house owned by Ms. Collins (the late Diana Rigg, regal). And that’s when this naive, idealistic and impressionable girl, who still has visions of her late mother, starts dreaming.

It’s the money moment in “Last Night,” Wright’s tour de force fulfillment of Eloise’s fondest wish.

“If I could live in any place, in any time, it would be London in the ’60s!”

She sleep walks into the neon, the bistros and clubs, and finds her alter ego, Sandie (Taylor-Joy) when she looks in 1960s mirrors. She observes and lives through Sandie’s bouffant-haired, designer gowned or mini-skirted singer, her polar opposite. Sandie is confident and on-task, with her stare-you-down eyes on one prize, to be “the next Cilla Black.”

That’s what she tells the “manager” she’s directed to in one posh club. Jack, played by Matt Smith, one of the creepiest Doctor Whos, promises her the world, gets her an audition, and then strong-arms her into “how the game is played.” Sandie’s dream of stardom — she has a pleasant, sexy but somewhat indistinct singing voice, overwhelmed by her sexy confidence — devolves into chorus line burlesque shows for almost all male audiences, and “entertaining” the wealthy, old leches of Britain’s entitled class, greasy old pervs who melt into a blur in her mind.

As Eloise sees this play out in her dreams, she dyes her hair and starts dressing like Sandie. But she awakens each day to an increasingly fraught real-life, alarmed for Sandie, with her rattled state and wild-eyed episodes shaking her “star of the class” fashion design status, if not entirely scaring off classmate John (Michael Ajao), who is sweet on her.

There’s nothing for us to do but worry with her and for her as we await the “snap” we can see coming in the London of “then” and the London of now.

Wright gives “Last Night” the air of homage in casting Rigg and Tushingham, and Terrance Stamp (“The Limey”), icons of 1960s British acting, in supporting roles. Stamp swaggers through Eloise’s life as the cockiest of cocky old creepers, just the latest in a series of dangerous men her grandmother warned her about as she packed.

“London can be a lot,” Eloise is told. A lot.

McKenzie and Taylor-Joy are perfectly-paired as alter egos, with McKenzie’s Eloise making herself over in Sandie’s sexier, more self-confident and fashionably assertive image. McKenzie is Carey Mulligan to Taylor-Joy’s Natalie Dormer — cute, meek and introverted contrasted with sexy, worldly and dangerous.

The film’s dark, bloody and expressionistic turn can feel abrupt, and won’t be to every taste. Some story elements fall by the wayside, underdeveloped.

And anybody familiar with the history of the times might smell a lawsuit in its depiction of the unsavory exploitation “game” and its role in making singing starlets such as the one mentioned and depicted, and another suggested.

But in an era in which even “name” directors struggle to get challenging work on the screen, Wright has made a singular leap to the next level of ambition and artistry, and hopefully taken his fans with him.

Rating: R for bloody violence, sexual content, language, brief drug material and brief graphic nudity

Cast: Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, Michael Ajao, Rita Tushingham, Terrance Stamp and Diana Rigg.

Credits: Directed by Edgar Wright, scripted by Krysty Wilson-Cairns. A Focus Features release.

Running time: 1:56

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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