This is Edgar Wright critiquing his own style of always viewing nostalgia through rose-tinted glasses.
Few directors in the world do nostalgia better than Edgar Wright. Whether it is professing love for genre films in his much-adored Cornetto trilogy or cutting scenes of a getaway car to the beat of his favourite music in the supremely lean Baby Driver, Wright does something few filmmakers can (or even venture out to do). He recreates the air, the smells, and the ‘vibe’ of his memories, giving us the closest thing to his experience about these things in his life.
In his latest directorial venture Last Night In Soho, Wright pens a love letter to London. How he does it is precisely the trick of this film.
The film begins with a silhouette of a young woman, framed perfectly in the centre of the screen. She starts dancing as if her bedroom was a movie set. This is how we are introduced to Ellie Turner (Thomasin McKenzie), who seems to be especially charmed by the 1960s. She does Audrey Hepburn impressions from My Fair Lady, and is sufficiently drunk on her ambitions of becoming a fashion designer and making her mother proud.
However, there are a few hurdles here: Ellie’s mother killed herself after a prolonged stint as an unsuccessful designer in London. Ellie ‘sees’ reflections of her mother in mirrors, an indication of similar mental health problems shared between mother and daughter. However, when her grandma (Rita Tushingham) asks, she says that she does not ‘see her anymore.’ When Ellie gets the opportunity to study in a London art school, her grandma is understandably concerned.
Packing a suitcase full of vintage LPs, socks, and dreams, Ellie makes her way to the big city. Exposed to bratty fellow students who sneer at her ‘oddness,’ she moves away from the dorm and rents a room by herself. While sleeping in this room, Ellie begins having vivid dreams about a girl called Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young woman in the ‘60s, who moved to this very room with dreams of becoming a singer. As the nights progress, Ellie follows Sandie as she meets Jack (Matt Smith), an ‘agent,’ seeing London just how she imagined it from the pop culture surrounding the decade. Ellie, who we are told has a tendency to feel more deeply than others, becomes unduly invested in the life of Sandie and her dreams. Sandie becomes a muse of sorts for Ellie.
A protagonist’s surreal, dreamy alter-ego reminded me of two films, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Incidentally, both these films have to do with lead characters, who dabble in performing arts. While one, in pursuit for perfection, drives herself over the edge, the other simply rots in an apartment despite some starry ambitions at one point. The protagonists, interestingly, are female on both the occasions. There are echoes of both these films in Last Night in Soho, where the roaring ’60s of London quickly flip from heaven to hell for Ellie, who follows Sandie, who goes deeper and farther away from what she set out to be.
In a way, this is Wright critiquing his own style of always viewing nostalgia through rose-tinted glasses.
In Last Night in Soho, Wright offers a surprisingly cynical perspective of the world, including his favourite decade of pop culture around London: the swinging sixties. In many ways, Last Night in Soho is also a horror story of the unrequited dreams of the youth. It looks back at a few individuals, who begin their careers with idealistic notions, which they are soon forced to abandon. As a mood piece, Wright’s film remains firmly on track for almost three quarters of its runtime of 119 minutes. Towards the end, when it becomes a more conventional ‘horror’ film, is when the magic dissipates.
McKenzie and Taylor-Joy are mesmerising as Ellie and Sandie, both haunted and driven in their own respective ways. Matt Smith’s Jack effortlessly doing the twist while holding a cigarette between his fingers, is an image that probably epitomises the ‘60s of our dreams. Nothing captures the era better than this one moment in Wright’s film.
Last Night in Soho is playing in Indian cinemas.
Tatsam Mukherjee has been working as a film journalist since 2016. He is based out of Delhi NCR.