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Last Night in Soho

"inventive, immersive film-making"

★★★★ - STUFF 

- All hail New Zealand's new screen queen Thomasin McKenzie - 

According to the Hollywood trade papers, this is the movie Thomasin McKenzie spurned the chance to work with Tom Cruise to pursue.

While some may describe dropping out of Top Gun: Maverick to join a time-spanning, psychological horror as madness (all we really know is, one moment the Wellington actor was in it, the next she wasn’t listed anymore), the now 21-year-old’s star-making turn in Last Night in Soho is proof she made exactly the right decision.

Don’t let the presence of 2020’s Queen Anya Taylor-Joy fool you, this is the Thomasin McKenzie show(case) – and she grabs the opportunity with both hands.

She plays Eloise “Ellie” Turner, an aspiring fashion designer with an affinity for the music and clothing of the “Swinging Sixties”. Both she and her seamstress grandmother Margaret (Rita Tushingham) are over the moon when Ellie lands a position at the London College of Fashion, although the latter is concerned how her young charge will adjust from the more leisurely pace of life of her rural Cornish upbringing, especially given what happened to Ellie’s mother just over a decade ago.

Unfortunately, from the moment her taxi driver makes an unwelcome comment about her legs, Ellie fails to feel comfortable in the “big smoke”.

Room-mate Jocasta’s (Synnøve Karlsen) party and mean girl ways put her further on edge, to the point that after just a few days, Ellie is looking for alternative accommodation. A top-floor bedsit in Goodge Place seems ideal, especially with the area still feeling cloaked and soaked in the era she so loves. She doesn’t even mind landlady Mrs Collins’ (Diana Rigg, in her final role before her death last year) financially crippling demands for two-months bond and rent in advance. That just means she needs a job, which she duly finds as a barmaid in the cavernous downstairs at The Toucan.

However, her new surrounds seem to be having a strange effect on Ellie. From her first night in the bedsit, she starts having vivid 1960s-set “dreams” about Sandie (Taylor-Joy). An aspiring singer, these visions are initially about her attempts to get her big break, but gradually they become more and more disturbing, as her “agent” and “lover” Jack (Matt Smith) offers up her “talents” to a succession of men who are really only after one thing. And while Ellie’s perspective is often that of a detached observer, there are times when it feels like she’s taking Sandie’s place.

Apparently inspired by Don’t Look Now and Repulsion, writer-director Edgar Wright’s “dark valentine to London” (co-written with Penny Dreadful’s Krysty Wilson-Cairns) also evokes memories of various Hammer horrors, The Neon Demon and Somewhere in Time, while also having the feel of a Doctor Who or Sapphire and Steel story (especially the grotesque, distorted ghostly apparitions Ellie encounters).

However, what elevates Last Night, aside from McKenzie’s believably, rapidly intensifying angst, is Wright’s trademark inventive, immersive film-making.

As with his last feature Baby Driver, the soundtrack is key to the film’s soul and style. Here we have a carefully curated, both in terms of thematics and mood-setting, selection of ‘60s hits from the movie’s eponymous Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich track to Cilla Black’s You’re My World, Sandie Shaw’s Puppet on a String, Petula Clarke’s Downtown (Taylor-Joy delivering a particularly haunting rendition in one scene) and, naturally, Barry Ryan’s Eloise.

Likewise, the costuming is suitably sumptuous, while Wright’s clever, clever use of mirrors and reflections to have both Sandie and Ellie sharing the same frame is both bravura and breathtaking. And, yes, he definitely knows how to make an audience jump.

Strip away all the timey-wimey and vaguely supernatural guff though and what you’re left with is a psychological horror that should also truly resonate with a modern audience. Like Promising Young Woman, this is an excoriating look at toxic masculinity, which, while possessing a very different sensibility, still manages to deliver some shocking surprises amongst its terrifying twists and turns. 

- James Croot, STUFF

Last Night in Soho is now playing at Light House Petone & Cuba!


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