Last Night In Soho I Saw Last Night In Soho
They asked if we had seen a man in a chicken suit go past. That’s Soho for you.
Edgar Wright’s new film is a psychological puzzler that’s a love letter to London’s Soho then and now. That’s its blessing and its curse.
Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy are faint-voiced mentally fragile fashion student and confident glamour model respectively, the twist being that they exist in different time periods, the sixties and now. Periodically the sixties breaks through to the present, mostly via mirrors. And it has a purpose.
Wright is originally from Somerset, which means Soho must have come as a shock to him. His dream version of Soho is circa 1965 – we know that by the huge ‘Thunderball’ marquee on a cinema building that’s a blend of the London Pavilion and the Café de Paris. Those of us who remember the latter will picture it much smaller and crummier than it looks here, where it’s been enlarged and glamourised, but that’s fine as Anya is dancing there – a lot – to old Cilla Black hits.
I used to hate visiting the loos in the London Pavilion, a vast cinema long past its finest hour, because it involve traversing a gigantic underground ballroom in the dark. Now it’s part of a cocktail bar complex. The film is full of lovely pleasure-points for those of us who came of age in Soho, but there’s a supernatural story for everyone else as the two lives and two time frames get inextricably tangled, leading to a past murder.
It must be said that the film doesn’t quite work, for the simple reason that the characters are a little too one-note; menacing, innocent, kindly, sinister, etc., and the set pieces become repetitive. If ghosts really haunt Soho they should be glimpsed once, powerfully, not shown so many times that you start to work out where they bought their clothes.
The fault is with the script and not the stunning design. But sometimes that doesn’t really matter, and what fun it is to see night-time Soho put up on the screen with the stars who populated it then – there are roles here for Diana Rigg, Rita Tushingham and Terence Stamp. Sadly, the fabulous Ms Rigg died and the film was caught up in a two-year pandemic delay.
What is it about putting Soho on screen that directors get wrong? ‘Absolute Beginners’ was an absolute disaster, and perhaps the only film to catch its seedy glamour is ‘The Small World of Sammy Lee’. Perhaps filmmakers fall too in love with their subject. The film that possibly gets closest to capturing something of that era and that place is the family slapstick comedy ‘Smashing Time’, which foregrounds the characters.
Emerging from the screening at the Ham Yard Hotel we could head for a pub called The Toucan, which features in the film, but for sheer atmosphere you can’t beat The Sun and 13 Cantons. In the film, Thomasin McKenzie runs past it in a hysterical panic (Wright says; ‘We shot it for real and nobody even noticed’). And there in front of me, tonight, hurtling along the opposite pavement, was a beautiful girl in a white dress, running.
A few minutes later she went past again. Then a third time, always the same direction. This time she was with a crowd of smartly dressed running men. I started to think I was stuck in a real life time-loop. It was broken by a bunch of amiable young guys who asked if we had seen a man in a chicken suit go past. This is Soho, after all.
Earlier in the evening I’d had a drink with a young American woman who was on her first day out in the world. She had left US soil for the first time and suddenly found herself in a madhouse. Her first question caught me by surprise; ‘Why is everyone so smartly dressed?’ And I thought, It’s a Friday night in Soho, you wouldn’t wear casual.
Right then I would have loved to have seen the city through her eyes. But for now I settle for seeing it through Edgar’s.