Tag Archives: Krysty Wilson-Cairns

Last Night in Soho – London Film Festival

Last Night in Soho - London Film Festival

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


Film Review: 1917 and the Theatre of War

1917 Film

When the hundred year commemorations concluded in November 2018, you may have thought that interest in the First World War would wane. There are fads and fashions in historical study as there are in culture, but Britain has never escaped the emotional shadow of a conflict that combined new weapons with a vast loss of life, a mechanisation of mass death fought simultaneously for the first time on land, sea and in the sky. Yet, despite its scale and with experience of the conflict now beyond living memory, our connection to the Great War continues to be a very personal one. Sam Mendes’s new film 1917 is famously based on the stories told to him by his grandfather to whom the film is dedicated, and while clearly a passion project for the director, it is also a revelatory combination of cinematic and theatrical techniques that offer one of the most accurate depictions of the First World War on screen.

1917 and The Modern War Movie

The war movie has notably changed in recent years with films like Saul Dibb’s Journey’s End and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk challenging the cliches of the genre. While the latter offered a more immersive experience, unfolding in real-time to submerge the audience in the strained tension and ongoing danger of servicemen’s experience, Dibb’s film based on R.C. Sherriff’s famous play, played down the pity and disillusion so prevalent in First World War movies to show men hardened and exhausted by their experience, living from day to day but able to suppress their emotional reactions in order to carry on, giving a different kind of psychological poignancy to this well-known work.

The newly ennobled Mendes combines the two here but also offers something entirely new by breaking out of the trenches to create a more inclusive picture of the scope and scale of the war effort. Regardless of its setting, 1917 is essentially a journey narrative, taking two characters from one place to another, drawing its interest from their various encounters, perils and obstacles to overcome on the way. Structurally then, Mendes film is first and foremost drawing on tropes from work as diverse as Saving Private Ryan, Slow West and even Lord of the Rings, all of which use a journey to drive the narrative forward and sew a series of disparate encounters together.

But 1917 also remains recognisably and completely a war film, creating moments of high stakes tension that brilliantly imagine the landscape of the First World War, with all the elements you want to see – trenches, No Man’s Land, shattered trees, shell craters, dugouts and bombardments – but none of this is presented in the way you expect. What Mendes does is to extract the weighty emotionalism from these symbols of the conflict by making them feel everyday, there are no lingering shots of the many dead bodies (people, horses and dogs) littering battlefields, rivers and buildings, the giant rats or shattered townscapes or the misery of the men in the Front Line. All of these things are there but not the focus, instead the camera follows the protagonists on their mission travelling through a terrain which by this point in the war is entirely normal to them. Through the one shot (or “no cuts” as Mendes prefers) technique, the audience experiences the film as Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake do, death, decay and destruction are just part of what they see, with little sensationalism or sentimentality for the most part, and these innovative approaches make it unlike any war film you have ever seen.

Theatre Influences

One of the most intriguing aspects of 1917 is just how much of it draws on the techniques of theatre and Mendes vast experience in the West End without feeling “stagey.” As a theatre director, Mendes’s work in recent years has been remarkable, imagining events on an epic scale but balancing that with the intimacy of human relationships across generations. Mendes doesn’t so much as director as conduct plays, most notably in The Ferryman where the flow of information from multiple characters and perspectives felt like segments of music softly rising and falling as different sections of the orchestra were given precedence. The same was true of the more dramatically satisfying The Lehman Trilogy that took a cast of just three and told a family story of American finance over more than a century.

Here in 1917, Mendes achieves the same effect and while the thriller-like narrative arc with ticking clock helps the audience to experience the fears, determination and emotions of the lead characters, Mendes also renders the entire war in microcosm, representing on the one hand the wider picture of a conflict occurring right across the landscape of France that somehow makes reference to all the previous years of battle and credibly places these men in this moment, but also demonstrates the wider system of war including aerial reconaissance, snipers, transport trucks and medical facilities behind the lines. And even more extraordinarily, Mendes’s story unfolds as a  single journey through the process of war itself, from hopeful preparation to minor skirmishes, ultimate battle and the casualty clearing station where one way or another it all ends. It is that balancing of scale and intimacy influenced by Mendes’s theatre work that makes this film such a rich and fulfilling experience.

The no cuts approach also demands theatre-like performances from the cast and, in a Q&A that accompanied a preview of the film last week, George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman and Mendes discussed the extensive rehearsal period and the challenge of lengthy takes. The longest sequence in the middle of the film lasts eight and half minutes (you’ll never see the joins), a feat the actors had to perform in its entirety tens of times and constantly at the mercy of faulty props, mistakes and camera issues that required an entire reset – hence the slightly exaggerated story in the media mis-attributing errors in a scene to Andrew Scott that required 56 takes. Nonetheless, the process Mendes employed here to elicit performances from his actors is a theatrical one with long sequences of dialogue exchange and movement that required an intuitive relationship with the camera more akin to NT Live than standard film-making as the actors eschew the choreography of rigid shots and reaction moments to move more freely through the landscape of the film with the camera responding to them.

The performances are presented with the same kind of normality as the context, with Mendes insisting on a more realistic everyman feel to the leads rather than action superheroes. Mackay as Schofield is particularly good at the heart of the film, a solid soldier, whose rationality and grounded response to the issues that arise is sympathetically played and the audience wills his success at every moment. Chapman’s Blake is more hot-headed, driven by the chance to save his brother and more likely to charge into danger without thinking, which makes them an interesting and suitably antagonistic pairing who find a deep but unsentimental comradeship, one that isn’t constantly reacting to the horrors around them but bent solely on their mission.

The film is also full of understated but wonderful cameos from a host of theatre stars, introduced unceremoniously and woven tightly into the story to give momentary but superb performances that add a Waiting for Godot quality as the protagonists encounter a variety of different groups. Andrew Scott (Present Laughter; Hamlet) is outstanding as a weary and cynical Lieutenant, an equally impressive Mark Strong (A View From the Bridge) brings a heartfelt gravitas to his scenes as Captain Smith, blink and you’ll almost miss the wonderful Jamie Parker (High Society; Henry V), Adrian Scarborough (Exit the King; Don Juan in Soho) and Richard McCabe (Imperium), while Benedict Cumberbatch (Hamlet; Frankenstein) and Richard Madden (Romeo and Juliet) are crucial to the film’s final moments. 1917 is then the fascinating application of theatre techniques to a film that evolves into something entirely of its own, offering a new perspective on a familiar era.

The Reality of War

Yet, as a fictionalised story Mendes has clearly stated that dramatic licence, compressing events and experiences, is necessary to make 1917 cinematic, but he is overmodest in playing-down the vision of war he has created, which is one of the most realistic and inclusive dramatisations of 1914-1918 that we’ve seen. A lot of time in the First World War was spent waiting or moving, with the bombardment and slaughters of No Man’s Land far from a daily feature. By opening-out the world of the film and leaving the individual dugout, Mendes, really for the first time, shows the much larger system of war operation – often wider than the individual soldier could see – where different types of landscape existed, and as we follow Schofield and Blake through rivers, woods and fields, passed farmhouses and through artillery-battered towns, our understanding of the wide-ranging effect on Northern France is enlarged.

The balance between the famous mechanisation of the Great War and of the natural world is a crucial one, thematic almost, and Mendes is careful to walk the characters through the different types of terrain where fighting took place while emphasising the power of nature to eventually renew and restore. So as our soldiers leave the devastated and familiarly churned earth of No Man’s Land, explore a German trench and make their way through an artillery graveyard filled with shells and damaged guns, they emerge into places that are greener and, while perilous, accurately reflect the contrasting worlds of conflict and pseudo-reality which men experienced. Mendes uses these to explore the periods of intense drama in which the pair must overcome various obstacles interleaved with relatively long sequences of calm, comradeship and near normality that accurately reflect servicemen’s descriptions of combat.

This broadening-out of our perspective of war extends to the representation of other services as well. Often the one thing missing from almost every First World War film are the aeroplanes, the existence of the Royal Flying Corps who flew reconnaissance missions across the battlefield from the very beginning appear in 1917 exactly as they should. And not only does photographic aerial intelligence rightly become the springboard for the story, but aeroplanes are seen overhead, including a crash that nods to Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (no spoiler, it’s in the trailer). The date – 6 April 1917 –  reflects a period in which Germany was launching a large scale attack by its dangerous Albatros fighting squadrons that would wreak havoc for British pilots devastated by the “Bloody April” onslaught that started a few days after the events of the film. Including these snippets gives context to Schofield and Blake’s assignment, while recognising the vital role that all services played in the wider system of war in which these two men are simultaneously a tiny and vital part.

No Cuts Drama

Mendes spoke at the Q&A of the difficulty of creating tension with no cuts and where a director would normally rely on camera angles, shots and positioning to visually manage audience reactions, the complex simplicity of the film’s style meant music, sound and cinematography were vital to creating the changing mood. Thomas Newman’s developing score is crucial to the shape and evolving style of the movie, using plenty of low ominous beats to reflect the characters’ nervousness or fear in confined spaces while building to swelling – and more typically – classic crescendos in the final section of the film. But Newman also chooses near silence for poignant moments as the world pauses to absorb what happened. Look out too for a melancholic song performed in the woods and a very brief instance of birdsong, one of the sounds most meaningfully associated with war.

Occasionally the dialogue, co-written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns is a little clunky or over-sentimental with some emphasis on the futility of war, but Roger Deakins cinematography is exemplary, particularly the night scenes filled with fire and shadow that has an extraordinary visual beauty and Mendes notes a deliberate mythic quality to this section of the story. Mendes and Deakins previously worked together on Skyfall – easily the most aethetically arresting Bond film – and there are strong parallels here with both the continuing use of shadow as well as the Bond film’s final sequence in the Scottish highlands where a fascination with the effects of coloured smoke, silhouette and light strikingly draw the two films together.

1917 is then one of the most interesting, realistic and complete impressions of the First World War on film. It takes the attributes of the World War One movie, combines them with the tricks of the thriller and borrows a sense of purpose and drive from journey narratives to create something entirely new. By drawing on the directional and writing techniques of theatre Mendes creates an engaging and multi-faceted movie that opens-out the meaning and experience of the First World War. It is never less than a fascinating technical and story-telling exercise that pushes the boundaries of innovative film-making while following the quietly heroic story of brave men doing their jobs in a conflict that remains an ever-present and meaningful part of Britian’s modern history.

1917 is in cinemas now. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog 


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