‘Last Night in Soho’ Review: We Have to Go Back

Edgar Wright is a writer-director with a distinctive personal stamp, recognizable for his persistent use of popular music, his meticulous plotting and payoff, and for underlining comedy with cutting and camera movement. He’s one of the most deliberate popular filmmakers around — his films are fun and approachable, but they’re made with greater thematic and emotional goals and executed with a high level of craft. For his latest feature, Last Night in Soho, Wright teams up with co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful, 1917) and stretches out into the realm of the horror-thriller, employing his familiar tools towards a fresh set of goals. While this film shows off Wright’s usual flair as a visual stylist (as well as his record collection), he successfully tones down his signature sense of humor and fun to make space for tension and dread. Surprisingly, it’s plotting, an area where Wright is usually extremely tight, where the film falls apart. Last Night in Soho has both style and substance, both of which are squandered by its fumbling third act.

Let’s Do the Time Warp

Thomasin McKenzie (Old) stars as Eloise Turner, a fashion student getting her first taste of life in London. Eloise was raised in the country by her grandmother, from whom she has inherited an abiding love for all things 1960s. But there’s something much stranger about Eloise than her mid-century tastes — she’s also attuned to the world of the dead, haunted by the silent but apparently benign presence of her late mother. Eloise leaves her mother’s ghost behind in her childhood home, but her new Soho flat comes with a spectre of its own.

Eloise finds herself connected to the spirit of one of her room’s prior residents, Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Queen’s Gambit), an aspiring singer in the neighborhood’s mid-’60s heyday. Each night, while she sleeps, Eloise lives out Sandie’s posh Soho nightlife. Sandie is everything Eloise idolizes — stylish, confident, completely in the moment but with her eye set on a dream of stardom. Sandie becomes Eloise’s inspiration in the waking world, bringing a new energy to her fashion designs. When Eloise needs to say “yes” to something, she channels Sandie, like when she accepts a date with saccharine-sweet classmate John (Michael Ajao, in his first major feature since he played Mayhem in Attack the Block). But, before long, the apparent glamor of Sandie’s life meets a terrible reality which reverberates back into Eloise’s present in increasingly dangerous ways.

Whatever other complaints I may have about the final execution of his story, the entire cast comes to play. Thomasin McKenzie impresses as a starry-eyed teen whose dreams keep turning to nightmares. It can be a difficult task to play a character who is, by all outward appearances, losing her mind, but McKenzie never shook me off as a viewer by going too big. Anya Taylor-Joy is at home as Sandie, the ‘60s go-go ideal gone wrong in a predictably cruel and miserable way. The two are at their best, however, when they’re sharing a life. Becoming Sandie helps Eloise break out of her shell, while Eloise provides a lens through which to admire Sandie in a pure, non-predatory way, something Sandie is sorely missing as her tour through the gross, male-dominated lounge scene gets more and more seedy. This descent is personified through her boyfriend/manager Jack, played by Matt Smith of Doctor Who and The Crown fame, a man too weird looking to play contemporary handsome but well-suited to a menace-tinged “period handsome.” (Frankly, the mf looks like Odo to me.) An appearance by the late Dame Diana Rigg as Eloise’s landlady is also a treat, given what an icon she was in the late 1960s as The Avengers’ Emma Peel and James Bond’s true love in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Last Night in Soho

Nostalgia Kills

Edgar Wright and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (Oldboy, The Handmaiden) shoot the hell out of 1960s Soho, a world that feels like it’s built entirely out of reflective surfaces and lit only by provocative neon signage. A combination of editing tricks and visual effects allow for the dreamlike effect of Eloise and Sandie swapping places in scenes and in reflections while the camera floats about smoothly. The ‘60s scenes are grand and theatrical, turning on a dime from a fantasy to a house of horrors. These sequences look great, but since hard pink and blue lighting has been all the rage in genre thrillers for the past decade, they don’t stand out in the way they were likely intended to. When these scenes begin to get spooky and surreal, they don’t give us much we haven’t already seen in the likes of The Neon Demon.

So much attention is spent on creating a memorable atmosphere to the 1960s sections of the film that there appears to have been no thought put into the portions that are set in the modern day. Most of the film takes place in the 2020s, but this setting feels totally anonymous. Social media, an absolutely omnipresent tool for the fashion-obsessed specifically and teenagers in general, goes completely unmentioned in the film. There are a dozen terrific ‘60s needledrops, but there are zero contemporary songs. Even when reluctantly experiencing her college party scene, we only hear the 60s mod rock that Eloise plays through her headphones. The past has a very specific appeal, and the present is just a vague nuisance. This serves a character purpose, emphasizing the way the present feels less real to Eloise than the past even before she begins bouncing between time periods, but it also robs the film of context and contrast.

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When Last Night in Soho is working, it’s a story about how the ongoing victimization of women by men hampers Eloise’s ability to enjoy her own womanhood. Eloise is harassed from the very moment she arrives in London, when she’s propositioned by her cabbie from the train station. This experience is immediately followed by her first meeting with John, portrayed throughout the film as a cartoonishly good guy, who she’s now conditioned to treat as a potential threat. As Eloise relives Sandie’s fall into despair and exploitation, the leering eyes and grabbing hands of men long dead continue to haunt her when she returns to the present, keeping her constantly on edge. Eloise’s attempt at a joyful first sexual encounter is interrupted by a terrifying vision of a decades-old violent incident between Sandie and a man in that very same bedroom. It’s a powerful metaphor, just the sort of idea that ghost stories and horror movies are made to depict.

Then, in the last half hour or so, Last Night in Soho completely falls apart. There’s an expected pivot from thriller to straight-up horror (we are dealing with ghosts here, after all), but the depictions of the supernatural lose their sense of style and specificity and begin to look like something out of Are You Afraid of the Dark. The mystery plot turns on the reveal of information that it feels like the protagonist ought to have had already, making the solution feel cheap rather than thrilling. Most damning of all, an eleventh hour twist overcomplicates the plot and muddles the themes so badly that it becomes necessary for the characters to verbally clarify what the film is trying to say. It feels as if the characters are doing damage control publicity for the climax of the film during the climax of the film, which should perhaps have been a warning sign that the twist isn’t serving the story.

I liked the first two thirds of Last Night in Soho quite a bit, but this total whiff of an ending makes the film very hard to recommend. This isn’t the first time Edgar Wright has dropped the ball at the goal line — both Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and The World’s End both fizzle out a bit in the closing minutes and I think both fans and haters of Baby Driver can agree that the epilogue is totally unnecessary — but it’s never been enough to ruin a film on its own. Last Night in Soho is the first time a Wright film has gone off the rails early enough that it risks spoiling the entire experience retroactively. I wouldn’t count Last Night in Soho as a total loss, but it’s bound to be haunted by the better movie it could’ve been.