Matt Smith

Last Night in Soho

30/10/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Some cinema releases are more anticipated than others.

I’ve been a fan of director Edgar Wright ever since Spaced – and, through the ‘Three Cornetto‘ trilogy, the odd-but-enjoyable misfire that was Scott Pilgrim, and the wildly inventive Baby Driver, he’s delivered some of the most watchable films in recent cinema history. So, as soon as Last Night in Soho was announced, I was counting the days to its release. Too much anticipation can sometimes be a problem, but not in the case of this powerful psychological thriller. Chung-hoon Chung’s dazzling cinematography, the twisty-turny script (by Wright and and Krysty Wilson-Cairns) and a sparky soundtrack of solid gold 60s bangers all work together to make this a thrill ride from the opening credits onward.

After her mum’s suicide, Ellie Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) has led a sheltered life in Cornwall with her Gran, Peggy (Rita Tushingham) – though Ellie’s late mother still has an unnerving habit of watching her from mirrors. Ellie has always longed to be a fashion designer, so she heads off to the big city to take her place at the London College of Fashion. From the very start, she is uncomfortable in this unfamiliar environment, suffering the predatory advances of a cab driver, whose lascivious gaze threatens her from his rear view mirror. On arrival in her halls of residence, she is immediately alienated from her fellow students, a sneering, superior bunch who regard her as some kind of weird country bumpkin. She decides to be proactive and rents a bedsit on Goodge Place, presided over by the mysterious Ms Collins (Diana Rigg, having a great time in her final screen role). The tiny flat feels like a throwback to the 1960s but Ellie doesn’t mind. As evidenced by her dress designs and her vinyl record collection, it’s long been her favourite era.

But from her first night there she has disturbing dreams about a young woman called Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), an aspiring pop star and would-be 60s fashion icon, who falls under the influence of sleazy ‘manager’ Jack (Matt Smith). Jack, it transpires, sees little difference between a pop star and a prostitute. The trouble is, Ellie is increasingly involved in the resulting relationship, finding herself observing – and then sharing – the indignities that are heaped upon Sandie at every turn. As these experiences become ever more violent, ever more carnal, Ellie begins a rapid descent into darkness. The problem is, to those around her in the present day, she appears to be losing her mind…

There’s nothing particularly new about this premise, but Wright’s approach to it is refreshingly different and, for the first forty minutes or so, he doesn’t put a foot wrong. The film swoops and soars and segues through the various unearthly set pieces with consummate skill, and, while terrible things happen to Ellie, she is never allowed to be ‘the victim.’ The underlying theme is the toxicity of Soho – the disturbing underbelly that lurks beneath the bright lights. This film is simultaneously a love letter to and a condemnation of the 1960s. Both McKenzie and Taylor-Joy are exceptional in their respective roles and the presence of Terence Stamp as the ‘silver haired gentleman’ is a wonderfully threatening addition (watching Stamp singing along to Barry Ryan’s Eloise is a masterclass in understated menace). There are also some real surprises packed into the script, ones that I genuinely don’t anticipate.

So what’s wrong, I hear you ask? Well, to be fair, not much, but to my mind there are a couple of missteps. The faceless armies of male ghosts that pursue Ellie relentlessly around the city are brilliantly realised, but there’s a moment where they start to feel overused. Haven’t we watched what is essentially the same scene a couple of times already? And… I’m being picky here… there’s John (Michael Ajao), Ellie’s only real friend from college, a man so sweet-natured he could rot your teeth at thirty paces, a fellow so forgiving, he would make Ghandi seem downright surly by comparison. It’s not Ajao’s performance that’s at fault but the dreadful lines of dialogue he’s obliged to come out with, quips that feel like they’ve been drafted in from an entirely more lighthearted project and are consequently jarring.

It’s only these two elements that make Last Night in Soho fall short of a perfect five stars. Niggles aside, the film is an absolute blast and another success to add to Wright’s growing score of brilliantly inventive movies. I haven’t stopped singing Cilla Black’s You’re My World since I stepped out of the cinema and, until you’ve seen it performed on a blazing staircase with an accompanying kitchen knife, you haven’t really experienced it at all.

Go see! You won’t be disappointed.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

His House

05/11/20

Netflix

The ghosts and demons that regularly haunt people in supernatural stories are rarely as terrifying as those that are generated by their victims’ own bad experiences. That’s the central theme of Remi Weekes’ assured ‘ghost’ story, His House, newly arrived on Netflix. It relates a powerful – sometimes terrifying – tale that uses all the familiar tropes of the classic ghost story, yet offers us something more than the average scare-fest.

Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wummi Mosaku) are asylum seekers, newly arrived in Britain after a nightmarish experience in their native South Sudan. They have managed to survive a perilous sea crossing, suffering a terrible loss along the way. They now reside in a detention centre that is, to all intents and purposes, a prison. But fresh hope arrives in the offer of a home of their own, a place where they can live while they wait to see if they will be granted sanctuary.

They are met at the property by housing officer, Mark Essworth (Matt Smith), a man so ground down by the drudgery of his work that he seems barely capable of summoning the energy to answer their questions. But he does remind them that they are not, under any circumstances, allowed to live anywhere else until their case is closed. Which wouldn’t be a problem… but, as the couple soon discover, something malevolent is living behind the mouldering walls that enclose them… something that is rapidly marshalling its powers.

This is a lean and compelling narrative, which somehow manages to find fresh strengths in familiar techniques, and there’s a major surprise waiting in the wings, that – once revealed – leads viewers to reassess what they think they already know. Jo Willems’ cinematography offers memorable imagery and some of the dream landscapes he creates linger in the mind long after the closing credits.

His House not only provides a cracking thrill ride, packed with cleverly executed jump scares, it also makes you think deeply about the plight of people obliged to run from real life terrors, and the weight of the baggage that inevitably accompanies such circumstances.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

Official Secrets

20/10/19

Official Secrets is based on a true story; the fact that it’s one of the most shameful events in our recent history makes it worth seeing, even if the film itself doesn’t quite match up to Keira Knightley’s sterling performance in the central role.

She plays Katharine Gun, a translator at GCHQ in Cheltenham, a British intelligence agency. She’s paid to snoop on emails and recorded phone calls, in order to seek out those individuals who might represent a danger to the people of Great Britain – but what she stumbles upon emanates from a close ally and fills her with dismay.

It’s 2003 and the western world is moving ever closer to armed conflict with Iraq. Katharine spots an email from somebody called Frank Koza of the American-based National Security Agency, who is masterminding a (clearly illegal) plan to bug the offices of the United Nations in order to put pressure on politicians, ‘encouraging’ them to vote for an invasion of Iraq. Appalled by the thought of so many people dying in the ensuing conflict, Katharine secretly makes a copy of the email and passes it on to an anti-war activist she knows. The email eventually finds its way into the hands of Observer journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith), who publishes the piece. But when MI6 come looking for the whistleblower, it’s soon apparent that Katherine has put herself – and her Muslim husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri) – in terrible jeopardy.

The central message of Gavin Hood’s film is all too evident. We cannot trust the institutions that purport to have our best intentions at heart; too many of them are ready to cover up their dodgy deals by any means possible and throw to the wolves all who oppose them.

As I said, Knightley gives a remarkable performance here, but the bitty screenplay means that a whole procession of top-notch character actors are reduced to what amount to little more than cameo appearances. It says something when Ralph Fiennes, playing Kathrine’s defence lawyer, Ben Emerson, has little to do other than stand on a beach gazing mournfully at his fishing rod; throw in fleeting appearances from the likes of Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode and Tamsin Greig to name but three, and it’s clear that something is amiss.

Furthermore, the rather dry nature of the ensuing events occasionally prompts the writers to sex things up a little: it seems unlikely, for instance, that Yasar would have come quite so close to deportation as is depicted here – but nevertheless, this is an important story, one that should serve as a warning to anyone who believes in the sanctity of democracy. As the film points out, thousands of innocent people died because of the conflict in Iraq – a war that is now widely seen as an illegal violation of human rights. Katharine Gun was trying, in her own way, to prevent it from happening.

Tony Blair is not going to like what’s depicted here – and his is not the only political name that’s given a thorough kicking. Furthermore, recent developments in Syria make this all too prescient.

3.9 stars

Philip Caveney