There’s a moment in Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho where his affectionate love of movies shines through. Here, after entering the infamous Café de Paris, Eloise (Thomasin McKensie) views herself in the mirror. Instead of her reflection, it’s Anya Taylor-Joy’s Sandie, matching her every move as they seamlessly trade places with each other. I mean, who would have thought the mirror scene from my favourite Marx Brothers film, Duck Soup, could be cleverly re-imagined to take on sinister connotations?
That’s just indicative of the many signs that Wright’s twisty, haunting London based tale has within its locker in paying respectful homage to films that have clearly inspired him. The vivid use of colours from Argento’s Suspiria, the suspense of Don’t Look Now and Repulsion with the occasional sprinkling of Giallo/Hammer horror to measure. Even a scene where Sandie Shaw’s ‘Puppet on a String’ is utilised, wouldn’t be surprising if it was evoking a particular sleazy moment from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
Without divulging into spoilers (because what happens in Soho, stays in Soho), the story revolves around Eloise, a naïve, 60’s loving and idealistic young girl with aspirations of becoming a fashion designer. After being accepted into the London College of Fashion, she travels to London to accept her life. Unable to fit in and out of touch with campus life, she moves into a bedsit owned by Miss Collins (Diana Rigg in her final role). And just like the bustling streets of Soho, it comes alive at night, dreamingly transporting young Eloise into a 60’s wonderland of glamour and glitz where she encounters the mysterious Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a wannabe singer of the decade. But it quickly descends upon her, that it’s not everything it cracks up to be.
Although this is not a direct comparison, but Wright delving into horror is reminiscent of when Martin Scorsese did Shutter Island. There’s bravery in that choice, stepping out of your comfort zone to accept a challenge that goes against directing type. Wright – famous for The Cornetto Trilogy and Scott Pilgrim vs the World – created a series of geeky generational films to behold, forever encased with that British sense of humour and a comforting editing style that injects plenty of energy and heart. But the fascinating aspect is discovering how their significant traits are etched and embedded when the horror aesthetic requires a complete change of tack. And for two-thirds of Last Night in Soho, it finds that rhythm, and it is incredibly effective.
For Wright, the trademark wit, the endless pop culture references, and the highly stylistic editing are minimal or subtly restrained. There’s a playfulness in how it is utilised, such as the film’s use of mirrors where the audience is always kept within foreboding distance of something otherworldly and mysterious. It’s safe to say that Wright’s direction takes on a more of an ethereal, curated presence, juxtaposed to create contrast between the past and present but remixed to amplify some of its immersive and atmospheric features.
That attention to detail is greatly felt whenever Eloise is in her element, almost oblivious besides her unadulterated love of the decade. From her vinyl collection featuring Cilla Black, her bedroom posters featuring Sweet Charity and Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast in Tiffany’s, to its use of John Barry’s ‘Beat Girl’, it all culminates into a sweeping 360-degree payoff reveal when she’s transported to her 60s dreamscape, and James Bond’s Thunderball lights up the London skyline. Similar to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, there’s a lot of love in its reflective nostalgia, despite the absence of multiculturalism. This is not the first time this has occurred in Wright’s film, going back to Baby Driver and the notable absence of Black people in Atlanta (with exception of Jamie Foxx).
But it’s never far away from the seedy underbelly that London presents. Like its use of reflecting mirrors, in essence, Last Night in Soho is a love letter to the capital, sowing in ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’. And like all good horror movies, within its grimy sordidness, there’s an active undercurrent that questions what is more terrifying. The absence of jump scares is deliberate. Here, the seedy corners of London streets in its evolving mystery open the door to sexual predation and abuse.
For such a journey that is filled with various twists and turns, this is where McKenzie and Taylor-Joy are outstanding. They go through a beautiful synchronicity with their movements, occasionally trading places to showcase how deeply the transference is and where the past pushes into the present (and vice versa). Through her time-travelling expedition, Eloise begins to get confident, showing off her love of the 60s through her fashion designs that deepens the connection, until it becomes a nightmare. Wright and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917, Penny Dreadful) keep the explanation of Eloise’s gift subtle with carefully suggested hints pointing to her sensitivity to the spiritual world and her mother. But importantly, it builds into Wright’s larger ethos with his film, the notion of the outsider – someone who doesn’t fit in but ultimately finds their ‘tribe’. Wright’s films have become so accessible on this notion, and through their dual performance, the complementary turns only add to the tension it gradually builds.
So, it becomes disappointing when the film’s third act begins to undo a lot of the great things it was able to accomplish. When dealing with a sensitive subject – a #MeToo film of its era – Last Night in Soho doesn’t feel confident enough to stick its landing (and subsequent end). So caught up in the technical artistry and visual aesthetics of the genre, it becomes a muddled experiment of clashing ideas and diluted mixed messages. The fact that its conclusion also refers to two of the most recognisable pop culture moments in recent history doesn’t help its cause, taking its audience away from the seriousness it’s trying to articulate to borderline parody.
You admire Last Night in Soho for its unbridled fun and bravado – a feeling worth watching for. But when it comes to placing it amongst Wright’s best, it falls short.