Back in 2004, Edgar Wright made Shaun of the Dead, a romantic comedy with “bitey” Crouch End zombies. These days, Wright works with bigger budgets and, even when being playfully trashy, is inclined to adopt a darker tone. This glossy psychological thriller is a West End creep show. The monsters on the loose? Horrifically handsy men.
Our heroine is lower-middle-class student, Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie; adorable and eye-catching, especially when smeared in Halloween make-up). Raised in Cornwall, but now starting a course at the London College of Fashion, the fragile and semi-psychic Eloise struggles to make friends with her bitchy peers, or even a saintly, witty black student (Michael Ajao; doing wonders with a one-note part). Out of desperation, Eloise moves into a house on Goodge Street owned by Ms Collins (Diana Rigg; awesomely spry in her final role).
While sleeping in the attic bedroom, Ellie travels back to the 1960s, where she watches, and becomes one with, pugnacious Cockney Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy; her usual subtle self). Sandie’s a wannabe singer and is about to be offered a lucrative job by her swish new boyfriend, Jack (Matt Smith). By the way, Jack’s a pimp.
Wright’s movies have always contained nice parts for women, but Last Night in Soho (which Wright co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns) is his first female-centric project. Not all the scenes work. Shots of Taylor-Joy in stockings and a suspender belt resemble the sleaziest bits of Dennis Potter’s supposedly meta TV drama, Black Eyes. Mostly though, viewers are taken somewhere worth going. So many movies, whether mainstream or indie, romanticise or simplify sex work. Not this one.
So many movies, too, suggest the Sixties offered endless, fun opportunities for gifted proles. In Last Night in Soho, by contrast, financial survival involves stabbing people in the back. And sometimes just stabbing them!
Talking of gifted proles, Terence Stamp excels as a guilt-ridden old timer who, in the present day, haunts the streets of Soho. Might Stamp be exorcising a few demons of his own? For the 1967 film Poor Cow, he was cast opposite brilliant, non-posh icon Carol White, but where Stamp’s career went from strength to strength, White’s was wrecked by “pimps and liars” (her words). Stamp’s growly, heartfelt performance, here, is surely fuelled by the knowledge that sexy, working-class men have always had it easier than sexy, working-class women.
Though every image of the capital proves memorable (the lighting in seedy nightclub, The Rialto, is especially uncanny) this love letter to London isn’t gushy. That’s what makes it valuable. I’m sure if London could, it would write back, “Dear Edgar, thanks for being so honest. PS. East Finchley says hi!”
In cinemas. 116mins, cert 18