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Carmen Chin | March 17, 2022

Ah yes, the Swinging Sixties; a cultural revolution that permeated the city of London and its youth like no other. Soundtracked by music acts we now recognise to be greats of the decade, such as Dusty Springfield, The Kinks, Sandie Shaw, Cilla Shaw, The Walker Brothers—the list goes on—the cobblestone streets of ’60s London’s West End were strutted upon by young people who only wished to celebrate the country’s post-war landscape with a celebration of music, film, fashion and a brand new wave of popular culture.

If there were only a single word to describe that bygone era, it would be ‘iconic’. Taking its context into account, it immediately becomes a no-brainer to understand why Edgar Wright decided to set his latest film, Last Night In Soho, in this exact point in history. Cleverly disguised as a love letter to gaudy, neon-lit Soho, the film was born out of his own obsession and desire to pick apart the intricacies of the era. “Something that I find truly nightmarish—and I guess there’s an element where I’m sort of giving a sharp rebuke to myself—is the danger of being overly nostalgic about previous decades,” Wright told The Los Angeles Times of the film. “In a way, the film is about romanticising the past and why it’s…wrong to do that.”

What better way to truly shine a much-needed limelight on the pitfalls of over-glorification than to frame your story as a gripping psychological thriller? Last Night In Soho follows the dewy-eyed Eloise (portrayed to near perfection by New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie), a fashion student who eagerly leaves her rural hometown of Redruth, Cornwall to begin a new life in the capital city; but, of course, she’s not without her mother’s old Dansette record player and her sprawling collection of dusty Petula Clark vinyls. She harbours a deep infatuation for the Swinging Sixties and its fashion—she headily slips her feet into the shoes of Audrey Hepburn’s character in Breakfast At Tiffany’s with a makeshift dress slapped together using old newspapers and designing her own, actual clothes with elements drawn straight from the decade. The allure of the movie’s embodiment of the era—which gets synchronically defiled and distorted alongside the increasing perversion of the central plot—is the work of costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux, who previously won an Emmy for her designs on The Lost Prince (2003).

But her college life isn’t anything like she expected—she’s alienated from her cosmopolitan classmates for her taste for mid century style, and finds herself in a college dorm that doesn’t feel like home at all.

She moves out at the first opportunity after coming across an old bedsit that has clearly seen better days, managed by an elderly woman who goes by Miss Collins (the late Diana Rigg). Her first night in her new Soho bedsit, illuminated by the flashing red and blue neon lights of the French bakery next door, reveals to Eloise that the bedroom is soaked in memories as she unwittingly slips into what seemed to be a vivid dream of the 1960s. She loves it, of course: she shadows a confident, young blonde woman, who only went by the nickname Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), as the latter enquires about becoming a singer at the illustrious Café de Paris club one night. Sandie quickly develops a romantic relationship with the club’s charismatic teddy boy manager, Jack (Matt Smith), and finds herself revelling in the glamour of it in the days that follow. She designs a dress identical to the one Sandie first wore in her dream, and even has a complete hair makeover done to emulate Sandie’s. Eloise eventually comes to moonily idolise and worship Sandie as she continues chronicling Sandie’s journey in becoming a singer in subsequent nights, like a spectre from the future.

Sandie’s life slowly begins to bleed into Eloise’s reality—physical evidence of Sandie’s events begin manifesting in the present day, such as the lovebite left on Eloise’s neck, as the latter comes to realise that she’d been recounting an actual series of events. Things quickly start spiralling as Sandie’s life begins taking a turn for the worse in Eloise’s dreams. Her knight in shining armour, Jack, turns out to be a pimp, and neither Eloise nor us viewers are able to do anything but watch in horror as countless predatory men begin circling Sandie for sexual favours against her will, suffocating her both metaphorically and literally against the backdrop of a smoggy, dingy night club. She rapidly loses herself in her pursuit of unearthing the truth behind Sandie’s demise as she simultaneously grapples with the unwelcome realities of a decade she once thought to be utopian.

Eloise’s nightly immersions into the realities of life as a woman in ‘60s Soho started with a glimmering sheen; a delusive coat of corrective paint. She glamorised a time she first believed to have been an infallibly perfect era of culture, and apotheosised Sandie in similar, naïve manners that conveniently gloss over its downfalls. Much like the Swinging Sixties’ own demise, Last Night In Soho quickly and unassumingly plunges into a dark, macabre third act; Eloise’s giddy romanticism now having been flipped on its own head to morph into pure, unrelenting hysteria. 

Wright’s execution of the downward spiral from Eloise’s veneration and love for the period to a deeply-rooted fear is marked out by a progression of events that occur simultaneously between two separate timelines—Eloise’s present day and Sandie’s past. As the horrors of Sandie’s nightlife snowball with each passing twilight, Eloise also experiences a downfall as she descends further and further into this chasm of delirium, with no true way back out.

Lighting is a marker of particular importance in Last Night In Soho. The flickering red and blue lights of the bakery that bleed into Eloise’s room every single night transform from a beacon signalling fantasy-like dreams to a harbinger of atrocities that she cannot seem to escape. What at first seemed like a beguiling Valentine dedication to the emblematic Swinging Sixties had its many layers unassumingly yet excruciatingly peeled back through Wright’s expert filmmaking. It leaves viewers with the one haunting message Wright has had for us all along: the truths of our pasts shouldn’t be tainted through rose-tinted glasses.

“This is London,” a crude Miss Collins tells Eloise. “Someone has died in every room and every building and on every street corner in the city.” It’s true—for as long as any of us can remember the British capital has found its footing upon the bones of the dead. Spectres of the past continue to unfalteringly haunt; and Last Night In Soho, bringing along with it kinetic retro-chic flourishes and ostentatious theatrics, arrives to leave the similarly lasting impression that not all that’s gold always glitters.

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Carmen Chin

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