Rita Tushingham

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

Doctor Zhivago

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02/12/15

It’s hard for me to accept but it’s been fifty years since I saw this film. It was in 1965 in a Chinese cinema in Singapore, where the idea of a snowbound landscape seemed an impossible fantasy. I remember, as a boy, being absolutely blown away by the experience. It was one of the first ‘serious’ films I’d ever watched, though I also seem to remember that many of the critics of the time were rather unkind to David Lean’s interpretation of Boris Pasternak’s best-selling novel, accusing it of being a ‘chocolate box’ movie.

So it’s great to be able to reassess it on the big screen and to realise that whole sections of the film have remained with me, imprinted indelibly on my unconscious mind; and to confirm that this really is an ‘old school’ epic of admirable power and grandeur. I didn’t know it then, of course, but Lean had one heck of a struggle to realise his vision. Unable to film in Russia, he had to make do with locations in Madrid, (in summer) his actors sweating under layers of fur. Other shots were secured in Finland, Canada and Portugal. A cavalry charge across a frozen lake was recreated by placing a cast iron sheet across a dry Spanish river bed and sprinkling it with plaster dust.  Not that any of that is evident. You’ll rarely see a more convincing evocation of winter landscapes.

Dr Zhivago is essentially a poignant love story, set against the turbulent events of a changing Russia. It begins with Yevgraf (Alec Guinness) a policeman in the ‘new’ Soviet Union, trying to find the lost daughter of his half brother, celebrated poet, Yuri Zhivago and his lover, Lara. Could it be ‘The Girl’ (Rita Tushingham)? From there, the story cuts back to Yuri’s tragic childhood and then moves on to the tumultuous events of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, where the lives of both Yuri and Lara are forever linked and transformed by the horrors of war.

It’s totally engaging, even at a bum-numbing 193 minutes. (Those with weak bladders will be glad to hear that the film still features its original fifteen minute intermission). In the title role, Omar Sharif, fresh off Lawrence of Arabia, provides a remarkable calm at the centre of the cinematic storm, while as Lara, Julie Christie has never been more radiant. Add a stellar selection of supporting actors – Alec Guinness, Rod Steiger, Tom Courtenay, Ralph Richardson, and you have a powerful film that dazzles as much today as it did in the decade in which it was released.

But it’s the magnificent set pieces that really linger in the memory: a savage cavalry attack on a protest march, with Zhivago’s tortured expression conveying the true horror of the situation unfolding in front of him; a packed railway station, where Zhivago and his family fight to board a train to the Urals; and a remote country house transformed into a gleaming ice palace by the extremes of the Russian winter. What’s even more remarkable is that this was all achieved without the benefits of CGI and other contemporary special effects – Doctor Zhivago is a tribute to all the technicians, set builders and costume designers who toiled to make David Lean’s remarkable vision a reality. Fifty years on, it still stands as a beacon of extraordinary creativity and a tribute to a man’s uncanny ability to film epic stories.

Chocolate box? Well, if that’s the case, tuck in. This is a delicious confection, as tasty now as it ever was.

5 stars

Philip Caveney