Anyone who has moved to a big city from the boondocks knows that whirligig of emotions that thumps home in those first few days: wonder, nervous excitement, the occasional flood of cortisol as you navigate crowds that seem to consist solely of sharp elbows and grumpy faces. You’re a 33rpm record in a 1,000bpm world – especially if that city is London.
Seriously fertile turf, in other words, for Edgar Wright’s rabbit-hole of a psychological thriller that slowly swallows up Thomasin McKenzie’s new-to-town fashion student Eloise. There’s no refuge for her when the shit hits the fan. Her fellow students are a nightmare. Her mum passed away years ago and her kindly aunt (Rita Tushingham) is back in Cornwall.
When she moves into the top floor of a creaky old Bloomsbury house run by a cranky landlady (Diana Rigg), those daytime travails are joined by some increasingly frightening nocturnal ones. Hitting the pillow at night, she’s suddenly ushered into the shoes of an aspiring cabaret singer, Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy). It’s 1965: Thunderball is playing in West End cinemas and Cilla Black is dazzling nightclub crowds. London is swinging and Matt Smith’s smooth-talking agent is soon hooking her up with a gig. The world is her oyster bar.
Of course, things quickly turn sour in the way things in a world full of rapacious, baying men tend to. Time travelling with ever-more-sinister consequences, Last Night in Soho slowly and cleverly morphs its West End playground from impossibly glamorous and Vogue-ready and into a seedy and sinister kingdom of leering males – and its heroine from eager and bright-eyed to bedraggled and kohl-caked.
Two women suffer for the same sexual exploitation here – one in the past, one in the present day – which makes for a smart depiction of trauma echoing through time, as well as the desolate, lonely nature of repercussions. Wright, who co-wrote it with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917), always keeps the female perspective at the forefront.
McKenzie sells both her character’s spiralling descent and a slightly underpowered romantic subplot with a fellow student (Michael Ajao), even if the pay-off zigs and zags a little in sorting out its hierarchy of threats. Taylor-Joy steals her scenes – as she tends to – and she supercharges the movie with an ethereal out-of-time-ness that’s borderline ghostly.
Wright follows some ghosts of his own. There are nods to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom – look out for a tracking shot down Bloomsbury’s Newman Passage where Carl Boehm’s voyeuristic maniac once terrorised young Londoners – and hints of Polanski’s jittery atmospherics, as well as the odd subtle giallo staple (mirrors and broken glass are a motif here).
The supporting cast amps up that heady air of ’60s-ness: Brit-cool icons like Rigg, Tushingham and Terence Stamp get much more than token roles: they help power the plot. Last Night in Soho makes for a genuinely fitting epitaph for Rigg, who died after the shoot wrapped. It’s a proper showcase for her talents and touchingly, the film is dedicated ‘For Di’.
It all makes for an immersive evocation of time and place, and a more sober, if still stylish, filmmaking flex from Wright. Gone are the trademark crash zooms and whip pans, and the hairpin cuts of his recent action thriller Baby Driver. Gone, too, the comforting cameos and goofy banter of the Pegg and Frost trilogy – in ice-cream parlance, this one is more Twister than Cornetto – and that unmooring from the director’s previous work makes this an especially satisfying trip into the unknown. Like its eerie Soho back alleys, you’re never sure what’s around the next corner.
Last Night in Soho premiered at the Venice International Film Festival. Out in US and UK cinemas Oct 29.