Last Night in Soho (2021)
A Murder in the Past. A Mystery in the Future.
Edgar Wright has become somewhat of a stylist after the slick direction, visuals, and soundtrack of Baby Driver (2017). Moving away from the comic stylings of his earlier films (known as the Cornetto Trilogy), Wright has transitioned into creating confections that look great but have a questionable amount of substance hiding under the veneer of visual and aural cleverness. Last Night in Soho continues the director’s trajectory — it comes wrapped in a beautiful package yet scraping past the surface leads the audience to question what’s really living underneath the bright lights and canny needle drops.
Eloise ‘Ellie’ Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) is a young woman obsessed with the Swinging Sixties. When she gets a chance to study at a major fashion school in London, she leaves behind her native Cornwall for what she sees as the adventure of a lifetime. Her doting grandmother worries about Ellie’s ability to cope in the metropolis, which is especially poignant as Ellie’s mother too traveled to London but, due to poor mental health, took her life.
Ellie is a fragile outsider who, when arriving in London, realizes the city is filled with more than wonder. There are dangers that her sheltered upbringing hasn’t quite prepared her for. An excruciating ride with a predatory cabbie to her student lodgings gives her the first sense that the big city isn’t as safe and wonderous as she’d hoped. Once she arrives at her student accommodation, she’s subjected to bullying from her roommate Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen), and a wild dormitory party makes her decide to seek lodgings elsewhere.
Ellie answers an advertisement for a bedsit in Soho in a house owned by the strict Mrs. Collins (Diana Rigg in her final role). There are rules for living in the house; no men after 8 pm, no smoking, no night-time laundry. All rules the agreeable Ellie is happy to abide by so she can sleep in a room that has barely been touched in terms of decoration since the mid-1960s. Once in her new abode, Ellie begins to have dreams or visions about another young woman who lived in the Swinging Sixties, the era she so longs to have known. A beautiful blonde woman named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) is glamourous and wants to be a nightclub singer. She’s prepared to do the hard yards to realize her dream, but after her introduction to Jack (Matt Smith), her dream quickly descends into a living nightmare, a nightmare that Ellie is watching and, in a helpless way participating in.
At the start, Sandie is very much the antithesis of Ellie; she’s confident and driven. Ellie is seduced by her power and the excitement of the era, so much so that she turns down spending time with her new friend John (Michael Ajao) to go back to her room and follow Sandie on her exciting nights in London. Ellie is living something perfect in those early visions, a version of the mid-1960s that she has longed for. Sandie becomes her muse, and in school, she draws the clothes Sandie is wearing as inspiration for her student collection. Ellie also decides on a make-over and colors her hair blond, styling it after Sandie. Sandie becomes a symbol of empowerment to Ellie, so when Sandie’s abuse at the hands of Jack and a series of other men becomes the next page in the narrative that Ellie is watching, Ellie becomes increasingly lost in the trauma she is seeing. The visions stop existing only in her rented room and start to overcome her waking life. The blur between what is real and what is the past is further muddied when she meets an older and unnamed man (Terence Stamp) who seems to take an unhealthy interest in her. The intersection between what happened to Sandie and what could happen to Ellie becomes a fine line, and Ellie is motivated to reveal Sandie’s fate to the world, perhaps to give justice to a woman she views as deeply wronged by the world of men.
Wright’s vision is undeniably sumptuous. His invocation of the glamour of Soho in the 1960s is impressive, and the production design and in-camera effects that allow Ellie to be with Sandie in the exciting clubs of Soho are top-notch. The colors and costumes by Odile Dicks-Mireaux, Brooklyn (2015), are brilliantly evoked, and the musical numbers are exquisitely rendered. The audience feels like it has stepped back into a magical era. However, this surfeit of style soon overwhelms the script (written by Wright in conjunction with Krysty Wilson-Cairns of 1917 fame). As the movie morphs from a homage to Sandie’s period into a horror film, the plot loses steam. The audience is invested to an extent in both Ellie and Sandie, but the question of what Wright is trying to say in the film becomes muddled. Faceless men haunt Ellie, and her sanity is at stake; ugliness takes over. The story moves from the perils of young women alone in a big city and concentrates on the horror that is misogyny and the throw-away nature of such young ladies. Although the change initially packs a gut punch, it soon becomes somewhat stuck. A boulevard of broken dreams becomes repetitive, and ultimately the final twists are predictable and without impact.
Both Thomasin McKenzie, Jojo Rabbit (2019), and Anya Taylor-Joy, Emma. (2020), give bravado performances. The young actors carry much weight in the film and do so by inhabiting their characters believably. The veteran cast is also outstanding. Diana Rigg, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), and Terence Stamp, Superman (1978), both prove why their careers are widely lauded. Rigg especially goes all out here, embracing the increasing absurdity of the plot and coming out of it as a glorious presence.
Many will laud Last Night in Soho as a terrific neo-giallo (a term that probably gets bandied about too often and without sufficient reference to the movies that inspired the term). Whilst the film is a mystery that becomes a psychological and physical horror, its strengths tend to buckle under the tonal shift. Yes, this is a top-notch mystery, but the horror aspect is overdone to the point of undercooking what could have been an effective invective about gender, mental health, and the resilience of women in a misogynistic world. Wright would have benefited from a touch of subtlety but instead goes all out to create something that hobbles its own purpose.
Despite its shortcomings, Last Night in Soho does boast some of the most arresting visuals one will see from a British film in 2021. Director of photography Chung-hoon Chung, Stoker (2013), and production designer Marcus Rowland, Rocketman (2019), bring everything to the table. Also, excellent value is the wonderful 1960s Brit Explosion soundtrack. Cilla Black (who appears as a character briefly) and Petula Clark will wow a new generation with their classic songs. Regardless of some questionable narrative choices, the pure spectacle of Last Night in Soho may well have audiences wanting to go downtown in Swinging London.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney