Sunday, November 21, 2021

Last Night In Soho (2021)

Overall, a very strange experience. When it was over I had a sense that I had rather enjoyed it, and yet for almost none of the reasons I had been expecting to. 

As a cinematic love letter to the Soho of now and of the time just prior to my own birth, it doesn't really work, and yet, after a night to sleep on it, I am not sure how much that really matters. 

I had deliberately avoided the trailers. I was properly psyched. In fact I had only seen this music video beforehand, and it doesn't give the game away. 

Downtown: originally released by my father's friend Petula Clark
...and which also featured very lately in Red Notice

I'm not sure I really should either. Except to say that while I have come across third party mentions of 'Giallo-esque' imagery, I was specifically reminded of those fantastical Christmas movies for kids — though one which then heads off to some beyond-the-watershed dark, pissy alleys, even if — like its protagonist Eloise — it never quite decides whether to manifest as childlike or fully adult: a coming of age drama that never quite comes of age. 

The young stars are good, but the show is stolen in many ways by Terence Stamp and Diana Rigg, in her final appearance. The ever mesmerising Anya Taylor-Joy gets to sing and dance fetchingly, but her role, like that of Matt Smith is sadly a little under-written and small, given their combined screen-time. 

I was altogether unconvinced by Thomasin McKenzie's accent*, but then her character's Cornish origins are a bit of a clumsy narrative ruse, for in today's England, where else could such a country mouse hail from? 

And so begins my list of quibbles, a fairly long one for a film that I undoubtedly enjoyed. 

Next up, and it's a bit of a technicality, but the key location in the movie is in Noho, not Soho. 

One is then inclined to observe that the premise is seriously vague, and yet again, I am not sure how much that really matters. 

Edgar Wright chooses to leave unresolved the precise method by which fashion student Eloise travels back to the Soho of the sixties. She's asleep at first, and then later on she isn't. Is it something emanating out of her own imagination or slightly disordered perceptions, or is it in fact the bedsit itself that is serving as a portal? At one stage some spiked drinks are also implicated. 

Once she's back there, the point of view is inconsistent. Sometimes she is Sandie the wannabe starlet, sometimes she trails her in the mirror as the camera sees them both.** The way Sandie's story resolves itself in the last act makes this muddle even less mild. 

It struck me that Wright was in the end more interested in the nostalgia of his movie reference points than he was in his (ultimately negatively) nostalgic vision of this part of London. 

Those with no prior knowledge or experience of London's Soho — and one has to assume that a sizeable chunk of the eventual audience will fall into this category — could end up with rather partial instruction.

We seem to be becoming so enamoured of the task of debunking the past according to our own contemporary cultural preoccupations, that the loss of complexity and contrast has ceased to bother us that much. 

There has always been more to Soho than sleazey, toxic masculinity. Indeed, for a large part of the last century it was the one part of downtown retaining a multifarious migrant community with a particularly buzzy Afro-Caribbean culture in the decade before the release of Thunderball (1965). 

That period serves as my own half-imagined, nostalgic reverie of the West End, an urban space so central to the first half of my life. It emerged from an 80s sensibility looking backwards, via the novels of Colin McInnes and the stories of my father and uncle, to the underground world of jazz clubs that they frequented. The men in this dreamscape more typically wear black polo-necks than grey suits. Dinosaurs no doubt, but stylish ones. 

The era was at least partially reproduced, by 2019's The Trial Of Christine Keeler on the Beebultimately the tragic tale of Stephen Ward, another one of my father's colourful mates from the period. That show too suffered somewhat from over-stylisation as well as a certain coyness with regard to the carnal details.  

Last Night In Soho has one major black character, in the contemporary timestream, whose presence evinces all sorts of awkwardness and ultimately absurdity as Eloise's travels and travails pan out. Why doesn't he just walk away? 

The Soho of the eighties remains very vivid to me as well. My father's office was in Frith Street and the dad of his PA Lucy was the equally long-serving Vicar of Soho, sworn foe of Paul Raymond and nominally attached to the bombed out shell of a parish church on Wardour Street. 

Around the middle of the decade I was seeing out an internship which saw me ziz-zagging around locations in Fitzrovia. The whole district then a playground for hard-boozing creative types, their watering holes spaced out between the dense concentrations of sex shops the Vicar was gradually eroding, plus a still visibly thriving Mediterranean retail and restaurant trade.

My father was some way from being a Soho 'character', but he moved effortlessly in its sub-theatrical milieu (he was for a time the co-owner of the New London Theatre where Cats was performed for yonks) and I think he carried a substantial piece of disreputable downtown — no finer place for sure — around with him even when later attempting to reinvent himself as a respectable retired country gent. (As, in a way, I do too.) 

My own final, fixed Soho is the one which existed between the mid-nineties and the mid-noughties, by the end of which I was based out of Soho Square. 

Superficially both more mainstream and more alternative, the seediness having largely retreated behind doorways where it would have to be actively sought out, there was a burgeoning bar and club scene, a perpetual churn of briefly fashionable eateries, and Old Compton Street, already a rainbow parade upon which a handful of the old shops — pasta and porn —  still held out. Pubs like the Admiral Duncan in which I had enjoyed illegal pints as a teen had been entirely re-imagined. 

The Toucan was in a sense then my local, and I somehow never discovered that almost empty basement! 

London nostalgia is a funny old thing. I have emerged from this film with an odd desire to go back to reading Pepys

The secret diarist was perhaps one of the leading predatory males of his generation, his playground of sleaze just to the south, in Covent Garden. He will probably avoid long-term cancellation, as most people only ever read the parts of his journal relating to plague and fire. 

Edgar Wright's film may be about one particularly swinging period in the capital's past, but it insinuates in an apparently non-accidental way something larger and more timeless, and anyway, there's a fleeting glimpse of the Huguenot church on Soho Square, a precursor of which almost certainly featured in the life of Pepys's wife Elizabeth, one of a group of around ten thousand French refugees who in the main settled in that part of the city during the seventeenth century. 

The end credits of Last Night... are interspersed with brief captures of streets around Soho, apparently shot during lockdown last year. In one of these I noticed that Ed's Diner is no more, and yet earlier on in the film, there it was, but then the presence of the late Diana Rigg had already revealed to me the stretch of time this has taken to arrive on our screens. 

All kinds of questions naturally arise. If I were ever to write a novel set in Antigua, particularly the Antigua of fond, nostalgic memory, would I feel obliged to represent it authentically, or just draw out the details which matter most to me, or perhaps those I imagine might matter most to the majority of contemporary readers. 

We all have to start somewhere...

Edgar Wright clearly has no memory of the Haymarket in 1965. He represents it beautifully, yet I am forced again to face that painful truth, that as one grows older, younger directors appear and lay down a visual record that conflicts rather acrimoniously with one's own remembered experience. 

I've reached the stage where this is starting to happen to the 1980s, but even the 90s is kind of up for grabs already. 

The scene in the Cafe de Paris (a covid casualty) permitted me to pore over two fairly significant memories. Firstly a 21st birthday party I attended in 1987 at said venue. Jack Nicholson was one of two celebrity-thespy attendees, both men seen leching rather extremely and absurdly after female undergrads from Cambridge.  

But the thing about Jack was that he was hardly the classic Autumn-Spring predator portrayed in this flick, for he was rumoured locally to have a thing for a rather frowsy lady called Thelma, I recall, then fronting Charles, our local Belgravia greengrocer — and if anything a few years his senior. He would hang around the trays of vegetables and ask her out for dinner, just as long as she dressed up a certain way...

And then I remember reading an account written by a man who left the Café de Paris during the Blitz, narrowly avoiding being taken out by a German bomb which landed smack in the middle of Piccadilly, opening up a massive crater more or less in front of the Royal Academy. I have forgotten where I came across this and no amount of googling has helped. (Possibly not the same raid in which the Café de Paris itself was struck in 1941.) 

If anyone can assist me with this...

She said no...

* In truth, I have sort of never forgiven her for being cast as Jewish (when she isn't) in Jojo Rabbit. (Meanwhile, as has been documented elsewhere, Taylor-Joy's handling of accents is here, as elsewhere, phenomenal.)

** Wright apparently references Taylor-Joy's reputed terror of mirrors. 

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