Film

Review: Fantasy and Reality Collide in Edgar Wright’s Intriguing, Haunting Last Night in Soho

Taking a walk down a decidedly darker path than he has in the past, director/co-writer Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho alternates between the swinging days of London in the 1960s and the bustling city that it is today, all seen through the eyes of newly arrived transplant fashion institute student Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace and Jojo Rabbit), who is as terrified of new things as she is obsessed with old ones. Eloise’s backstory includes losing her mother (also interested in fashion and shown in flashbacks/visions as played by Aimee Cassettari) to suicide when she was only seven, leaving her to be raised by her sweet grandmother (Rita Tushingham), who allowed her granddaughter to indulge in old music, vintage fashion, and making most of her own clothes.

Last Night in Soho

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

The vision of what Eloise thinks London and fashion school are going to be like is a bit different than the reality. Her roommate Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen) is a bit of a judgmental party girl, so much so that Eloise immediately decides to look for a place of her own, which she finds in a room for rent at a flat owned by Ms. Collins (the stately Diana Rigg, in her final on-screen performance). On her first night in these new accommodations, Eloise has what she believes is a dream in which she can see the world through the eyes of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a confident, stylish, would-be singer living in the 1960s. Sandie knows how to enter a room and get the attention of just the man she needs to help her kickstart her nightclub singing career, or so she thinks. She’s steered in the direction of the suave Jack (Matt Smith), a manager who seems to know everyone in town connected with the entertainment business, and before long Sandie is auditioning at one of the showcase clubs, where she hopes to work her way up to headliner.

At first Eloise is fascinated by these mental transportations because they give her ideas for “new” dress designs for her schooling, but before long the glitz of Sandie’s life fades away, and Jack reveals himself to be something far less sincere and reputable. The way Wright and director of photography Chung-hoon Chung interweave Eloise and Sandie’s lives is like a magic act sometimes, blending the use of mirrors, in-camera tricks, choreography, and special effects seamlessly. When Eloise dyes her hair from brown to Sandie’s exact shade of blonde, it’s almost impossible to tell them apart at times, especially when Wright begins to employ a rich use of lighting tricks (lots of reds and blues in this one).

Not wanting to give away too much of the film’s mysteries, Last Night in Soho finds Wright embracing the sleazier elements of both time periods, especially during the 1960s sequences. Co-written with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (the Oscar-nominated writer for 1917), the screenplay is intentionally confusing at times, simply because Wright doesn’t want to reveal who may have done Sandie wrong in her era. But we’re also not always sure why Eloise is being haunted by certain faceless figures in her own time, either. There are hints dropped that she’s had issues with seeing and talking to her dead mother when she was younger, and the things she’s seeing now seem to support that she’s losing her mind. Or perhaps she simply sees dead people or is emotionally in tune with traumatic energy that has been in the air for decades. She has her suspicions that a silver-haired perv (Terence Stamp) who frequents the pub where she works has something to do with her visions, and the only person who is remotely trying to understand what she’s going through is fellow student John (Michael Ajao, Attack the Block), who also happens to be a potential love interest.

My biggest issues with Last Night in Soho are in its second half, which gets so muddled in Wright’s stylistic tricks and visuals that he somewhat abandons the genuinely interesting story that he builds up in the first half. And as fantastic as McKenzie’s performance here is, she is reduced to a screaming, delusional mess who almost gets John killed a couple of times, and goes from able detective figuring out what happened to Sandie all those years ago to a woman just running away from every shadow on the street. That being said, when the plot finally snaps back into place in the film’s closing moments, I was genuinely shocked at the outcome.

Taylor-Joy’s Sandie may have the most interesting story arc, beginning the film as a seductive powerhouse and slowly having her confidence and self-worth chipped away by a series of terrible men (led by Jack, perhaps overplayed as pure evil by Smith, who spends most the film posing rather than acting).

Wright’s love for music of the 1960s is on full display, and the needle drops come at us in rapid succession, but the score by Steven Price also does a great deal of the heavy lifting in terms of building tension and heightening the scares. Last Night in Soho is a mixed bag, and your response may be determined by what genre of film you think you’re seeing. It works best as a psychological drama with tinges of Italian giallo visuals. As a straightforward horror film, things come up a bit short, despite an abundance of blood and killing at times. As a takedown of people who get fixated on the past because they think things were better in the good ol’ days, it hits the nail squarely on the head. In the end, the performances are so strong and menacing, I got pulled in and through this intriguing, if not entirely successful, nightmare journey, in which past and present, reality and fantasy don’t so much get confused as they smash into each other violently and with a great deal of production design to frame it all.

The film is now playing theatrically, including in 35mm at the Music Box Theatre.

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