Last Night in Soho is an unexpectedly dark and ghostly take on the gorgeous swinging 60s

Last Night in Soho (MA, 117 minutes)

4 stars

It's been so long since a film hasn't, due to the fractured COVID-affected cinema industry, also had a simultaneous digital launch, that it feels wonderful and weird to be again heading to a hard-top cinema to see a film again.

Anya Taylor-Joy and Matt Smith in Last Night in Soho. Picture: Parisa Taghizadeh / Focus Features

Anya Taylor-Joy and Matt Smith in Last Night in Soho. Picture: Parisa Taghizadeh / Focus Features

Last Night in Soho has the kind of star-power to get you up off you couch, out of your pyjamas and into a cinema seat - notably everyone's Netflix crush from one of the bigger streaming successes of the first wave of COVID lockdowns, Anna Taylor-Joy from The Queen's Gambit.

Joining her on this swingin' ride through Carnaby heyday is Doctor Who himself, Matt Smith, and, behind the camera, Edgar Wright of Shaun of the Dead fame.

The 60s scenes are neon-lit and lovely, something of an Alice in Wonderland, initially.

Young and aspiring fashion student Ellie Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) wins a place at fashion school in London. She has a bit of a rough start with an obnoxious roommate in the college student accommodation, and so she finds herself a lovely little attic bedsit in the Fitzrovia home of the retiring Ms Collins (Diana Rigg).

Ellie already has a thing for 60s fashions and has brought in her suitcase dozens of 60s record albums from her grandmother's home, lots of Dusty Springfield and Cilla Black. Sleeping her first night in her own room, Ellie has a dream that places her in a nightclub in Soho in the mid-60s. In the dream she is a lovely blonde woman named Sandie (Anna Taylor-Joy), an ingenue, boldly introducing herself to musician manager Jack (Matt Smith) and declaring that she wants to perform at the nightclub.

Sandie's reflection in the room's mirrors is that of Ellie, the women seem somehow connected in the dream, but when Ellie wakes up she has the hickey on her neck that Jack gave Sandie. This seems to be somehow more than just a dream. As the nights progress, Ellie's dream link with this woman continues, though her story gets darker and less joyous as the first wonderful night in the Soho nightclub.

There has been a beautifully lush and sensuous teaser-trailer for this film out for some time with a samba 60s beat and Anna Taylor-Joy looking luminous in her beehive and Egyptian eyeliner. Having lapped that up, I was completely unprepared for the twists coming in this film, a ghost film with some moments of genuine horror, but more importantly, a ghost film of unequalled gorgeous and highly stylised production. The 60s scenes are neon-lit and lovely, something of an Alice in Wonderland, initially. The clever camera tricks and CGI that puts the two women, sometimes reflections of each other, into the same shot, are fun.

The screenplay Wright penned with Krysty Wilson-Cairns turns Wonderland on its head, pulling out the choicest horror movie tropes to flip this dreamworld and bring it into Ellie's present-day reality. Unfortunately, a heap of characters get barely a hint of backstory or development.

Edgar Wright is a lover of cinema. His films are stylised love stories to genre cinema, like the slick car heist flick Baby Driver, and this is probably his most mature and invested work. Like Sydney's Kings Cross, Soho of the 1960s was equal parts glamorous and underbelly, and Wright's set designers and costumers are obviously enjoying the job showing off both sides.

This was the final film for the late, great Diana Rigg and she is really good here. Kiwi actress Thomasin McKenzie is strong as Ellie, the country mouse who initially blooms under the muse of the girl in the dream/mirror, and her performance is equally brilliant once it becomes all wide-eyed silent screaming in the great tradition of Italian giallo horror.

Matt Smith, wonderful in his work on The Crown as a sympathetic Prince Philip, continues to deliver smart and dark work, while Anna Taylor-Joy is a delight, particularly when delivering a charming rendering of Petula Clark's Downtown.

This story Dark take on bright swinging 60s first appeared on The Canberra Times.