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Of all the major titles heading to the 2021 BFI London Film Festival, one feature stands out as perhaps the most perfectly selected in the lineup: Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho.
Were it not for the fact that the festival’s main gala screening venue moved this year from its traditional base in Soho’s Leicester Square to the Royal Festival Hall on the banks of the Thames, audiences watching the U.K. premiere of Wright’s time-twisting thriller could literally have left the cinema and turned straight into the famed neighborhood where it was set and shot.
Starring Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy, Last Night in Soho follows a young fashion student, Eloise, in present day who finds herself transported back to 1966 London and into the body of a singer attempting to make her way in the nightclub scene. It’s Wright’s wild tribute to London’s liveliest area: a hectic, messy grid of streets that intrinsically is linked to the swinging ’60s (think Mary Quant, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix) and whose venues, businesses and visitors are known for their contribution to the U.K.’s vibrant cultural scene. It’s also where Wright has spent a quarter-century making movies: The area is a hub for the British independent film industry, with the offices of globally renowned filmmakers located behind nondescript doors and up scruffy staircases (the director himself lives just a short walk away).
Described by Wright as his “dark valentine” to Soho, the film showcases not simply the glamour of its colorful glory years but also the darker, seedier and more dangerous elements — especially for women. McKenzie’s Eloise soon realizes that the era she initially idolized also is awash with brutal misogyny and sexual violence. Shortly after its world premiere in Venice, the film was described as having “brought #MeToo” to 1960s London.
For the director — who was born in 1974 — Last Night in Soho is his attempt to process his own “giddy puppy-dog enthusiasm” for the decade alongside the actual reality of the times. Effectively, the film, which jumps back and forth between the ’60s and the present day, questions the lure of easy nostalgia.
“Far too much in the world, especially in politics, people talk about the good old days and this idea that there’s a decade that’s perfect, where everything was great and nothing bad happened,” says Wright, who says the darkness of the ’60s is “well documented in literature, film and drama,” but only if you want to look for it. “In a strange way, there’s that other element where the further you get away from a decade, the more tendency there is to romanticize it, even the dark side … and maybe that’s a dangerous thing to do.”
For McKenzie, whose character is thrust headfirst into the thrills — and then spills — of the 1960s, she says filming Last Night in Soho made her realize that there’s “no point in constantly living in the past” while also underlining the importance of not glossing over what really happened.
Last Night in Soho could seem to pose a mind-bending thought: Nostalgia for the ’60s may be one thing, but what happens in 50 years’ time, when people look at our current decade? Pointing to the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement and Joe Biden’s election defeat of Donald Trump, McKenzie questions the temptation to look back with rose-tinted spectacles.
“We’re actually living through history now and things that are going to be studied in the future,” she says. “One day, all this madness will pass, but we will know that it was crazy.”
There is one element of nostalgia that Wright is keen to preserve through Last Night in Soho — that of Soho itself. A constant target of gentrification and development, the area has seen some of its most famous landmarks closed in recent years (one of the central locations in the film, the century-old cabaret venue Cafe de Paris, which hosted everyone from Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland to Noel Coward, shuttered for good during the pandemic).
“Obviously there’s an element where we’re sharing the Soho of the ’60s again on the big screen, but I didn’t realize that that Soho of 2019 and 2020 was also going to become a time capsule,” he says, adding that he hopes the film forces people to think of the history of the area and what already has been lost.
While Last Night in Soho might not get its London Film Festival premiere in actual Soho, as it might have done in previous years, Wright notes happily that the film will be screening at several local cinemas, including the Odeon Leicester Square, Curzon Soho and Picturehouse Central.
Says Wright: “So, yes, you can watch it in any of those and walk straight out into a shot from the movie.”
This story first appears in the Oct. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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