Wednesday 3 November 2021

The small world of Edgar Wright: "Last Night in Soho"

Nerd season continues with
Last Night in Soho, sacred Britfilm magpie Edgar Wright's attempt to retrace the lines of those swinging Sixties London B-movies (everything from Peeping Tom to Repulsion via The Small World of Sammy Lee) with the darker edge of Italian giallo. After the broadly insufferable action pastiche of 2017's Baby Driver, the new endeavour quickly positions itself as Wright's Grown-Up Art Movie, establishing in its opening half-hour some fraught psychic link between vulnerable young women in two distinct eras: country mouse Thomasin McKenzie, who comes up from Redruth to study fashion at latter-day UAL, and her glamorous Sixties alter ego Anya Taylor-Joy, a babydoll nightie being muscled around the West End by charming wideboy-slash-pimp Matt Smith. Her progress facilitates yet another retreat into a familiar, non-Brexity past. "There's just something about the Sixties that speaks to me," shrugs the McKenzie character when quizzed by her tutor about her inspiration; the same would apparently hold true of Wright (b. 1974).

His film has a nice, mostly persuasive understanding of Movie Soho, reassembled via actual locations, crafty sets and that small handful of odds and ends that haven't been gentrified over these past thirty years. (A marble R over a doorway assumes an almost runic significance.) He populates this imagined world with recognisable, evocative faces (Rita Tushingham as McKenzie's grandma, Diana Rigg as a landlady with a past, Terence Stamp as a glowering bloke in The Toucan) and sets their movements to a non-stop cabaret of period hits and near-misses ("Downtown", "Anyone Who Had A Heart", "There's A Ghost In My House"). You do feel something of the excitement of standing on Haymarket a few days after the release of Thunderball. (The reveal of its spotlit billboard serves as the film's early money shot, apparently facilitated by fellow nerd Tarantino.) And yet Last Night in Soho falls comprehensively apart whenever it must return to the real world of student parties and stitching seminars; what it leaves us clutching is more proof of what a callow filmmaker Wright becomes whenever he sets foot outside the comfort zone of his sharp, occasionally insightful comedies.

Viewed from the perspective of the real world, the new film's liabilities are glaring from the off. McKenzie and her fellow students are twentysomethings written by a man pushing fifty; Wright shares the writing credit with emerging team player Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917), but she's apparently been drafted in to attempt a salvage job on dialogue that, even at its most frowningly expositional, retains an unfortunate comic ring. "We're in the Dead Mums Club," snarks McKenzie's queen-bee roommate Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen). "Fuck leukaemia." I could never really buy the idea that a sheltered teenage girl in somebody's idea of the present could be this fascinated with London at the time of Tarbymania, either. Baby Driver was at least upfront about the fantasies it was selling, banally male (and banally adolescent) as they were; here, you sense Wright hiding behind his female lead, a goggle-eyed man-child born too late for this era, trying to make up for his tardiness by voraciously consuming those movies set there. What's come out the other end is more flimsy postmodern fetishism: a film informed not by lived experience but memories of better movies, long afternoons spent among the odiferous bagmen of NFT2. Even then, it remains forever vague: just something about the Sixties, rather than anything more specific or vivid.

What's semi-intriguing, and may eventually prove representative, is how Last Night in Soho maps the narrowly conservative sexual politics of our present moment onto its reconstructed past. Those first Soho movies had more than their fair share of monsters and angels, but the better (because grubbier?) titles equally made room for tough broads and weak-willed men. In a film that demonstrates the psychological depth of a sub-Saharan puddle, all Wright and Wilson-Cairns come up with are fluttery butterfly girls, gulping puppets on a string, surrounded by leering, cold-eyed predators and reprobates. It's paranoid, in the way online gender discourse often is, and it generates one nightmare-image of a row of johns in stained white Y-fronts that is so naffly funny it would seem the ideal occasion for a Nick Frost cameo. But it's never convincing and never once scary, no matter how much red light Wright artlessly casts across the frame like a BTEC student making My First Horror Movie, and no matter how desperately hard he pushes his soundtrack cues (spectral half-glimpse: "Always Something There To Remind Me", aha!) Returning to Film Twitter, we find a lively debate opening up as to whether the bulk of Wright's action unfolds within Soho or Fitzrovia, the neighbourhood to the immediate north. It's neither, I would suggest: the bulk of Last Night in Soho actually looks to be taking place around Toytown.

Last Night in Soho is now playing in cinemas nationwide. With thanks to Darren Sugg for the correction.

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