"There’s something about the ’60s that speaks to me!" says Last Night in Soho's aspiring fashion student Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie), a Redruth rube who's left her native Cornwall and her doting gran behind to try her luck in London. She’s not kidding. No sooner has she turned the lights off at the shabby bedsit she now calls home than she is magically transported back in time to a neon-drenched vision of that most Swinging-est of decades: a nocturnal wonderland full of happening nightclubs, sharp-suited gentlemen, and darkly seductive temptations.
The twist in Edgar Wright’s and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns’ (1917) lushly retro Valentine’s card to Soho’s romanticized past is that Ellie doesn’t see it through her eyes, but those of a glamorous mirror image: wannabe singer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a fellow hopeful about to discover there are perils lurking behind the city’s inviting façade. And so it proves also for Ellie herself, especially when those lucid dreams start bleeding into her waking present and an aging patron at the pub where she pulls pints takes an unsettling interest in her blonde-haired, Sandie-inspired makeover.
That said drinker is played by ’60s icon Terence Stamp and is just one of the delights in a cast that also features A Taste Of Honey’s Rita Tushingham as Ellie’s grandmother and the late Dame Diana Rigg as her spiky landlady. Yet it’s the young stars who emerge as the movie’s strongest suit, Taylor-Joy bringing supermodel confidence to her showgirl role and McKenzie lending a touching fragility to the director’s first female lead. Elsewhere, Matt Smith gives Sandie’s manager-slash-lover a raffish charm that becomes progressively more menacing as his true colors are revealed, while Michael Ajao is amusingly gauche as the fellow student who becomes Ellie’s lovestruck ally.
Production design (Marcus Rowland), cinematography (Chung-hoon Chung), score (Steven Price), and costumes (Odile Dicks-Mireaux) combine seamlessly to bolster a picture that, as one expects from Wright, also boasts a killer vintage soundtrack. And if the darker second half of the narrative depends on some overly familiar, woman-in-peril horror tropes, it’s a small price to pay for a piece that offers such intoxicating entertainment to the viewer – notably during a brilliantly choreographed, in-camera dance sequence in which McKenzie and Taylor-Joy deftly and repeatedly swap places at the Café de Paris as Smith’s enamored partner.
Last Night in Soho is in cinemas October 29, 2021. For more from Venice Film Festival, check out our review of Dune.