The allure of Soho may have dimmed in recent decades as chain coffee shops, pubs and restaurants have taken over the tiny patch of land between Shaftesbury Avenue and north Oxford Street. But the tiny cobbled streets are filled with an exciting social and cultural history, particularly from the immediate post-war era until really the 1980s that drew countless men and women eager to drink and dance, a place they could be themselves or even someone better. The exciting revelry and alternative culture found in its subterranean bars, members clubs and residential housing is endlessly attractive to dramatists looking to tell stories of wide-eyed youngsters finding new lifestyles in those heady days of abandon and happy oblivion.
But this vision of Soho was never real, it is a backwards projection, an attempt to recapture the nostalgia of times that felt free and unencumbered before everything decisively changed. And whether that was the economic depression and anti-corruption work of the 1970s or the terrible toll of AIDs in the 1980s, cultural projections of Soho are trying to bottle a single spark, a moment not dissimilar to that last Edwardian summer before the start of the First World War, as we try to retrospectively impose order on the chaos of the past, as though somehow the people there should always have know their time was running out.
Soho was a very dangerous place in the 1960s and Edgar Wright’s new film Last Night in Soho, released later this month and previewed at the London Film Festival, has an astonishing craft and seems designed to specifically jolt the audience out of its romanticised image of the era. Filled with people who had nowhere else to go, Wright’s historic Soho is alive with dangerous men who exploit women, preying on their fantasies of being someone special, luring them along darker paths to a kind of soulful and bodily destruction. A place of lurking shadows and lurid faces, Wright’s Soho is a grubby abyss, and, strangely, far easier to believe in than its glamorous alternatives.
The Duality of Women
It is a strange concept for a movie, using a young fashion student, Eloise, arriving from Cornwall to train as a designer at the University of the Arts, arriving in present-day London for the first time filled with hopes and the inevitable dreams of escape from the solitude of her country life. The film uses those sleeping visions as a means to awaken her to her own innocence. And Wright’s method for doing that is not just an aggressive welcome from the, somewhat underwritten and distinctly high school movie, bullies in her fashion class, or by giving her a terrible love affair with a suave but underserving rake, but by utterly terrorising Eloise with the timeslip biography of a fallen women whose body the young student unwillingly inhabits each night.
1960s Sandie is everything Eloise is not, confident, driven and certain that she will make it big from the moment she first steps into Soho. Seeking out a spot as a singer and dancer, Sandie is assured with men, dresses with flair and refuses to be second best. She wants everything right now and she is determined to get it. Eloise, by contrast, is initially rather homely, calmed by the easy rhythms of the 60s music she listens to endlessly, and isolated by her shyness from those around her, feeling out of place and particularly ‘uncool’ next to her more worldy course colleagues.
Wright and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns do something quite interesting in merging these characters together and, while played by separate actors, in the early part of the film, they share a personality with Eloise subsumed into the body and image of Sandie, allowing her to see and experience those Soho nights as though they are really happening to her. We see the two traditionally assigned sides of female personality in these characters, the vamp and the virgin or, as Mad Men referred to it, the Marilyn and the Jackie.
Yet, the writing doesn’t linger too long here and as the film heads in some darker directions, we see personality development in both characters that frees them from the stereotypes being projected onto them, largely by others in the story. There is vulnerability within Sandie, a deep wound that grows as circumstances play out, and we see her become almost greyer as the continual round of suffering wears down that bubbling confidence. Similarly, Eloise becomes increasingly frightened but in doing so, reaches a greater degree of independence and resilience than she did before, finding her way in the present day and, quite quickly, developing her own distinctive look to reflect the growth of her character.
Ultimately, Wright and Wilson-Cairns do much here to reinstate the more negative and seedier side of 1960s Soho and its less appetising consequences for young women threatened and coerced into performing for men. Those wistful Soho memories of drinking and carousing in this garish light now become male-only stories while the history for women at this time was quite different. And, despite what is so often recounted as a positive era of sexual liberation, for the waitresses, nightclub singers and hostesses of Soho, their bodies were not their own.
Creating the Whirl of Soho
Working with Art Directors Victoria Allwood, Tim Blake, Emily Norris and Oli van der Vijver, Production Designer Marcus Rowland and Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography, Soho is beautifully rendered and warped on screen, asking the audience to consider which version of the area is the true distortion. As Eloise and Sandie experience 60s Soho for the first time at the Cafe de Paris, it is a vision of colour as Sandie’s striking coral dress stands out against the rich scarlet drapes and plush seating in the club, filled with mirrors and light in which the women can see one another. It’s exactly what we have been told these spaces looked liked, elegant and charismatic, filled with energy and life.
But as the film unfolds, those visual choices and Wright’s camerawork becomes increasingly erratic, imposing on and disorientating our perspective as events blur. The past and present shatter and fragment, bleeding into one another, while the growing sense of foreboding, of something sinister building, strips away the gloss of those early scenes. That much of this reflects a kind of madness in Eloise, a manifestation of the disintegration between her daily life and the night terrors that grip her is interestingly achieved and, while likely to be divisive, Wright’s approach is unashamedly bold, all the more so for hitting the mark more often than it misses.
Modern Soho has a more pedestrian feel in the daytime but looks increasingly appealing in the night shoots as Eloise comes to appreciate some aspects of her present day life. The use of neon signs and interior light here makes Soho look more welcoming than in the earlier decade while some of the rain-based shots that create colourful reflections are lovely. The parties may be less stylish to look at, but Wright still creates that consistent sense of crowds drawn to small rooms in this part of town to drink, dance and forget, adding energy to the present day that retains Soho’s liveliness.
Staging London Past and Present
Taking place, then, in two versions of Soho, the very recognisable present day and, grafted on top, the initially more beguiling 1960s version, Wright’s time-bending film pays tribute to the exact geography of the place. With street names unchanged, we see both Eloise and her earlier counterpart Sandie tripping down the same roads on their way to adventure-filled encounters, both nervous but open to the possibility of what lies ahead. Wright heightens the late 1960s era just a touch, creating different shop fronts and street furniture that brings a keen eye to the changing physicality of the district but purposefully draws geographical consistencies between the decades in the warren of streets.
For the keen-eyed Londoner there is much to delight-in and those familiar with Soho and the surrounding areas will note a true rarity in film, that characters are seen to walk through genuinely connected streets, turning corners and arriving at exactly the right place. A minor distraction in many films and television shows set in familiar places and the cause of much post-viewing debate when, for example, Parliament is ludicrously visible from Tower Bridge. So this wonderful precision about Wright’s decision-making here enhances the story, adding an awareness that the filmmakers want their version of Soho to be as credible as possible for those who will notice.
However, Fitzrovia does pop into the film on occasion with Goodge Place as the lodging house for both women and Eloise’s student halls, while one notable scene tracks Sandie through a little known alleyway leading from Rathbone Street, which are technically beyond Soho. Yet, some suspension of disbelief is permissible in a film that is otherwise remarkably faithful to the area it depicts.
The End of the Night
Wright’s film is on far shakier ground as it draws to its horror-infused conclusion in which Eloise is first tormented by the ghosts of the past and then confronts a possibly predictably reality, one that feels a little too cartoonish in execution to fully shock. The film has built the premise that the past and the present are entwined and there are many precedents for the kind of haunting we see here, but the approach tips almost into parody in the hunt for a conclusion that goes slightly too far, becomes too melodramatic to satisfy the greater nuance and multi-layered storytelling that has gone before.
Anya Taylor-Joy’s star continues to rise and she is stunning as Sandie, a character we only see snippets of but who feels rounded and alive. Taylor-Joy is especially good at showing the wear in Sandie, almost as though she’s turned off the lights from the inside which affectingly captures the lot of many Soho women in one short scene. Her counterpart Thomasin McKenzie is a very likeable heroine, emitting a palpable outsider status and growing discomposure as the truth emerges. Matt Smith is charmingly vicious as 1960s manager Jack and Diana Rigg gives landlady Miss Collins some interesting edges. Synnove Karlsen could be better used as Jocasta, a rather one dimensional character for an actor capable of carrying a TV series, while a very unexpected and unnecessarily brief cameo from Sam Clafin seems a waste of another talented performer in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role, some of which must have ended up on the cutting room floor.
Last Night in Soho celebrates the craft of filmmaking; it is vibrant, ambitious and in marrying together a stylistic approach, storytelling and the physical layout of a beloved part of London, feels like something really new. The ending and the slightly overblown effect of the horror tropes may be forgivable given the interesting things the film has to say about our cultural memories of Soho and the experience of the forgotten women who suffered for it.
Last Night in Soho opens in UK cinemas on 29 October. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog