Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) lives for the 1960s. The clothes she wears, the music she listens to, even the movie posters on her bedroom wall scream Swingin’ Sixties. That’s when style mattered, when London was the center of the universe, and the era Eloise—or Ellie or Elle—fancies most.
Eloise is trying on those two nicknames to see how they fit. She doesn’t know why yet, but stage names are important: They protect the real you from the you others want to see. And Eloise could use a little protection. She’s off to be a designer at London’s Arts University in the West End. Back in the ’60s, this was a dodgy part of town replete with sultry singers and sex clubs. Today, it’s a touch more gentrified, though if you listen closely, the bones of the past will sometimes rattle in the present. “This is London, dearie,” Eloise’s landlord tells her, “There isn’t a corner of this city where someone hasn’t died or been killed.”
That’s Miss Collins (the late, great Diana Rigg), and her boarding house is the stuff of dreams. Eloise rents out the flat on the top floor—the one with the window by the red, white, and blue neon sign for the French bistro next door. Director Edgar Wright dedicates Last Night in Soho to Rigg, and it’s fitting. Her Miss Collins is a landlady who’s seen it all and then some. The Swingin’ Sixties only swung for one gender, and it wasn’t hers. Eloise doesn’t know that yet. Nor does the blond chanteuse (Anya Taylor-Joy) that keeps popping up in Eloise’s dreams. Her name is Sandie. Or was it Alexa? Alexandra? Alex? They’re all such lovely names.
That last sentence will make you shudder once you watch Last Night in Soho—a monster movie where the monsters are men, the violence is sexual, and the nightmare is real. That might not sound like a fun time at the multiplex, but Wright and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns manage to make their dual tale of women-in-danger simultaneously repulsive and attractive. And, for added measure, they implicate the audience in the process.
Soho is steeped in the slasher genre, and Wright and Wilson-Cairns put a new spin on an old tune with some very creepy images, not to mention loads of rock ’n’ roll. Soho opens so serenely—Eloise, the picture of wide-eyed innocence in a cupcake dress fashioned out of newspapers dancing to pop music—and with such love for the past, you’d be forgiven for thinking Soho is another movie choked with nostalgia. It’s not. The connection between Eloise in the 21st century and Sandy in the 20th is far from arbitrary.
Even better, Soho is not a movie on stable ground. Eloise’s mother died when she was young. Mum wasn’t mentally well, and there are hints that Eloise might suffer a similar fate. That could sound like a shortcut in the wrong context, but here, mental fracture lays a believable groundwork for what’s to come. One of Wright’s gifts as a filmmaker is his ability to reveal clues to the audience just a beat before the characters catch on. It allows him to build suspense alongside surprise, which isn’t easy but something he does quite well—that, and creepiness, and Soho has plenty.
Last Night in Soho (2021)
Directed by Edgar Wright
Written by Edgar Wright, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Story by Edgar Wright
Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Nira Park, Edgar Wright
Starring: Thomasin McKenzie, Synnøve Karlsen, Terence Stamp, Diana Rigg, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith
Focus Features, Rated R, Running time 114 minutes, Opened Oct. 29, 2021.
The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 29, No. 12, “Your vice is a locked room and only I have the key.”