Ghosts and time travel don’t usually mix. In the one case, they visit us; in the other, we visit them. In Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, both things happen simultaneously. There is a satisfying dizziness to seeing a person from the present chased down the streets of the past by zombies that seem to exist in both tenses. Wright cultivated this confusion in an interview when he said that he could see the window of his heroine’s room from his London flat, and pretended to worry about filming ‘literally where I live’. Literally he is probably safe enough, but figuratively, given the atmosphere of his film, he might be in real trouble.
In the same interview, Wright described showing the late Diana Rigg one of the film’s most elaborate sets, a reconstruction of the Café de Paris on Coventry Street. (This is not her territory in the movie itself. She plays an old lady who lets a room on Goodge Street to our heroine.) Rigg enjoyed the visit and recalled going to the real Café de Paris on her eighteenth birthday to hear Shirley Bassey. There was something else, though: ‘I remember walking down those stairs and a lot of rheumy-eyed men looking me up and down and feeling like a piece of meat.’ The movie effectively starts with a scene of this kind, although the piece of meat in question is called Sandie, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. That is, unless she is called Ellie, and played by Thomasin McKenzie.
I can explain this bit without spoilers. The story begins quietly, as should all stories that ultimately shriek. We are in the present. A young girl, Ellie, is dancing in her room, trying poses, making faces, approving of herself in the mirror. The music is all oldies – Peter and Gordon’s ‘A World without Love’, for example, from 1964 – and the record player makes an even larger gesture to the past than the music itself. Ellie is about to leave home (in Redruth, Cornwall), where she lives with her grandmother. She is going to London to study fashion design. The fact that the grandmother is played by Rita Tushingham, still best known for A Taste of Honey (1961), leads us immediately down memory lane, though not as directly as the sight later on of Terence Stamp standing outside a bar, looking more like Terence Stamp than any real person should. Diana Rigg, completing this collection of 1960s icons, doesn’t look like Diana Rigg, but since we know she is in the movie, we watch the face of the only plausible candidate (the lady on Goodge Street) very closely. The verdict (my verdict) is that it’s not impossible that this person could be Diana Rigg, a perfect effect for the movie’s purpose.
When Ellie arrives in London the film seems ready to spin the tale of the provincial ingénue threatened by the knowingness and condescension of the big city. A taxi-driver actually says he might become her stalker; her new roommate and the cronies she has over are so smart and trendy they would terrify anyone. They’re also pretty rowdy, and an orgy takes place in Ellie’s room on her first night. She cringes in the corner, and the next day decides to look for another lodging. This is where she meets Diana Rigg’s Mrs Collins.
The first few days in the new place are fine. Ellie dreams of a sort of alter ego called Sandie – much more sophisticated and ambitious than she is but just as innocent – who wants to make a career as a singer and a dancer. This figure is living in the 1960s. She has an audition – she sings an alternative version of Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’ – and shows a group of gawping men how well she can dance. But then things get rougher. After a couple of nights of these dreams, Ellie would like to stop the action, but she can’t, and in a remarkable montage Sandie sits in a bar with a not very young man. He asks her what her name is, and she tells him. He says: ‘What a lovely name.’ The scene is repeated five times, with a different man in each shot. Sandie gives a different name on each occasion, and the man says the same thing. Meanwhile Ellie has not only been dreaming of Sandie, she has been literally following her into the past. When Sandie walks down a long staircase which has a mirror for one of its walls, the reflection is not Sandie in her nifty 1960s dress but Ellie in her pyjamas. And when Sandie seems to be giving in to the men who like her name, Ellie breaks through a glass wall to try to stop her. This would be hard enough even if they were in the same time zone.
What is happening? Before Ellie leaves Cornwall her grandmother tells her she should try not to ‘see things like you do’. This might be a matter of perspective, but the context, and especially the fact that we have seen Ellie seeing her dead mother in a mirror, suggests something else: visions. What if Sandie is not an alter ego (or not only an alter ego) but a historical revenant? Wright has talked of ‘two theories about ghosts’: that they represent ‘unfinished business’ or that they are ‘the psychic residue of an event’. I’m not entirely sure I see the difference, and when Ellie ‘witnesses’ a shocking event, we are well into the horror movie and ready for the zombies. Ellie has ‘seen the right thing’, Wright says, ‘but she hasn’t seen the full context of events’. But the question remains: why are there so many zombies, and why are their hands reaching up from Ellie’s bed?
Wright has been accused of ostensibly criticising nostalgia while thoroughly indulging in it. There is something in this, but it would be hard to make a movie about the past without some sort of regret. Many of us will feel it when we see Thunderball (1965) announced on a cinema façade as a new film. A character in Last Night in Soho says of a pub that ‘if this place is haunted by anything, it’s the good times.’ This doesn’t have to be untrue or sentimental. What gets remembered is partly a matter of denial, but it is also dependent on the different kinds of luck that first contributed to the circumstances of whatever it is we are remembering. What needs to be acknowledged is that bad things also happened in the good times, and the film does this not by any editorial or directorial critique but by its evocation of bullying male supremacy (those rheumy-eyed guys) and our inability to stop seeing what we have seen. ‘We’ includes both Ellie and us.
A very interesting shot late in the movie gathers much of this into an image. A house is on fire, and the camera moves in on a record player very similar to the one Ellie had at home in Redruth. The machine and the halted disc are disappearing into the flames, and we think that this is no way for music to die. But then, what forms of violence haunted those chirpy songs we have long since begun to forget?