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(l. to r.) Matt Smith, Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy foto:yahoo.com

I had been anticipating Edgar Wright’s “Last Night in Soho” for months. My film tastes were formed in th ’60’s, and I was eager to see the take on the era from a current auteur.  Having seen it, I know it was a personal work for him. With the assistance of co-scripter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, he has applied his skills to a cautionary tale about how the era seduced a generation of young girls, and has left us with a stylistically brilliant and dazzling album of that culture.

Ellie goes to London foto:rogerebert.com

It begins delightfully with Thomasin McKenzie, as Eloise (Ellie), dancing with joy and abandon over the opening credits. She is about to leave for a London fashion arts college to become a designer. It’s the present day, but everything in her room, most prominently the “Breakfast at Tiffanys” poster, reflects an obsession with the sixties. But her grandmother, played by Rita Tushingham, warns her that London may be too much to handle. She reminds Ellie that her mother went there to become a star, when Ellie was just seven, but never returned, and eventually took her own life.

We see that Ellie is deeply troubled by this, but is too happy to let it bring her down. But she reassures her grandmother that she won’t let this happen.

But of course it will, and Wright has devised an intricate and continuously surprising story that is based on the sublimated fears that people have about living in total hedonism. The story is propelled by Ellie’s obsession, and growing identification, with Sandie, an iconic being she has only met in her dreams. The dreams began when she left her abusive school roommates and rented a room from a strict but often sympathetic old woman, played by Diana Rigg, in a well-maintained house.

Sandie, as played by a gorgeous Anya Taylor-Joy, is presented as a blazing blonde icon of sexual liberation. Ellie is not only shown imagining Sandie’s adventures, but actually being present at the event. As done with cleverly inserted mirror-play, we see Ellie in reflection, opposite Sandie, at various London nightclubs. But we’re never sure if she’s really there, or only alone in her room imagining it all. I don’t remember seeing a film that so dexterously, and rapidly, shifts between alternate realities, all to the pulsating rhythms of classic British pop.

Sandie’s story is hackneyed to the point of parody. Matt Smith, tall and sexy, plays Jack, who approaches her at a dance club, and is shown in awe of her wild, spirited dancing. He arranges an “audition” for her with a club owner, and her singing wows both men. Starry-eyed, Sandie falls hard for Jack, and totally believes he can make her a star. No surprise, however, when the tale turns instead to sleaze and violence.

Sharing the same lover foto:cultofwhatever.com

But Wright is cleverly combining Sandie’s trite story with Ellie’s reaction to it; she seems to absorb her vision of Sandie into herself, turning blonde and mimicking her gestures and dress. As Sandie’s tale turns darker, however, Ellie loses control. She comes to believe that Sandie really existed, and was murdered, years ago, in the same room she is living in. Multiple twists later, the crime is revealed, in a truly shocking and violent climax.

We realize this is more than a cautionary tale; the film seems to be a kind of expiation of Wright’s personal obsession with the sixties. At the end of Ellie’s ordeal, she seems finally to have liberated herself from her mother’s tragic past, symbolizing, perhaps, Wright’s own struggle as an artist.

If, in retrospect, this all seems a little too neat, it doesn’t spoil the thrill ride of getting there. The editing is syncopated for surprise and flow – always a Wright strength – and Chung-boon Chung’s scintillating color photography is hypnotic. And you can’t ignore the pleasure of seeing Terence Stamp (his face is still awesome!), Rita Tushingham and Diana Rigg’s final performance. But it’s the storyline itself that crimp’s Wright’s style.

foto:borneobulletin.com

foto:startribune.com

Specifically, it does the two lead actresses no favors. While Ellie’s opening dance promises joie de vivre, McKenzie is soon weighted down by dread over Sandie’s fate. I could barely count how many times, goggle-eyed in terror, she flees the room when flashes of Sandie-in-peril snap into her mind, leaving onlookers mystified. But Taylor-Joy, in a strenuous but mostly non-verbal performance, gets the worst of it. We see Sandie as ambitious and ice-hard from the get-go. She is neither of the two most familiar models of the character: the wide-eyed “bird”, usually a doormat for rock idols, or the sunny but simultaneously conniving achiever – immortalized in Julie Christie’s “Darling”. Instead, Taylor-Joy’s Sandie seems just a beautiful narcissist, and never delivers emotional vulnerability, in spite of her sexual degradation. Also missing – and even more damaging – is the absence of the blithe, joyful ease of a young woman’s discovery of life in the liberated sixties, something immortalized by Audrey Hepburn and Julie Christie. And that’s not only a sixties thing. Michelle Pfeiffer displayed it delightfully in John Landis’ “Into The Night”, from 1985.

Major directors have always tried to transform their obsessions into art. The sixties, with its dropping of taboos against onscreen violence, sex and profanity, allowed filmmakers like Hitchcock, Polanski and others to explore the underbelly of bourgeois culture, and the public ate it up. On the current scene, Quentin Tarantino has made a career out of his multi-layered yet still playful film journeys into his fetishistic psyche, even if his obsession with stylized violence is often repellent. This film strews hints of their influence like rose petals. Wright seems to feel it would be dishonest not to pay them tribute; they led the way after all.

But for me, something is lost. For all its stylistic brilliance, this film is thematically crude, and even exploitive because it doesn’t allow for Wright’s very special strengths as an artist: his warmth, optimism and genuine love for his characters. Whether it’s zombies, or entire villages composed of homicidal maniacs, he makes us laugh at the darkest human impulses. And we leave with a smile because his enduring faith in plain human decency always wins out. None of the sixties auteurs who influenced him, or Tarantino, can match him on this. I just don’t think it was important to them.

Wright doesn’t even begin to challenge their brilliance in this genre, and I think he knows that. C’mon Edgar. Build another home for the warm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About the author

Michael A. Scott has been watching movies for as long as he could walk down the sidewalk by himself (and even before). I don't always love every movie, yet I founded this website to share my love of movies with people throughout the world.