Starring: Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit), Anya Taylor-Joy (The Queen’s Gambit), Matt Smith (The Crown), Terence Stamp (Superman II), Michael Ajao, Diana Rigg (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), Rita Tushingham (Doctor Zhivago)
Director: Edgar Wright (Baby Driver)
Writers: Edgar Wright & Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917)
Runtime: 1 hour 56 minutes
Release Date: 29th October (US, UK)
Two Edgar Wright movies in one year? It’s like the Christmas wish of a thousand film bros came true! Yes, 2021 has graced us with two projects by the guy that every third film student wants to be like (the other two being Tarantino and Fincher), and whilst The Sparks Brothers was a wonderfully informative and engaging documentary that proved Wright did have range outside his usual wheelhouse, this latest project is the real main course. Last Night in Soho is the closest Wright has yet come to making a “serious” movie, though it still can’t help but be yet another genre pastiche; in this case, psychological horror flicks from the 60s and 70s. Purely as an homage, this is a gorgeously crafted love letter to a rose-tinted era that simultaneously rips those glasses away to reveal the seedy truth underneath, but it’s ultimately a shame that it has little to say when it matters.
Going into detail on the plot of Last Night in Soho is difficult without giving the game away; the trailers show very little outside of the first act, and the press screening began with a request from Wright to not talk about anything in the second half. What I can say is that it’s a story that begins with the best of intentions and plenty of promises, and for a while it seems to know exactly what it wants. It doesn’t waste any time explaining how the fantastical elements work or get bogged down in logistical minutiae, and gets on with delivering the stylish and passionate energy you expect from a Wright production. It may be a film about the past, but Last Night in Soho comes at 1960s London from a modern lens, highlighting the glitz and glamour of the period and setting but also shining a spotlight on its gross underbelly. It perfectly captures the overwhelming anxiety of living in the city as an outsider, the shunning and isolation that comes with viewing the world through a different lens, the desire to push yourself to meet an unreachable standard to your own detriment, and the stigmatisation of poor mental health.
This all makes for a compelling and promising first half full of unnerving chills and unsettling laughs, and thankfully the cinematic references take a backseat to the evolving horror of the narrative. Unfortunately, it’s in that obfuscated second half where the wheels come off the carriage and it becomes clear the film hasn’t really thought about what it wants to say about the subjects it tackles. When you get past all the flair, this is a pretty basic “be careful what you wish for” cautionary tale, but where the main character never really did anything to deserve her torment, and the attempt to muddy the morals of all involved just makes everyone look like a dick, an idiot, or both. That’s not even getting into the dubious gender politics, which never cross into truly problematic territory but does skirt that line on many occasions. Despite having a female co-screenwriter, at its core this is a story about women obviously written by a man, and even with those softened edges I get the impression certain toxic audiences may take away totally the wrong message; I’m talking “Tyler Durden is my role model” levels of missing the point.
Whilst its story doesn’t always fire on all cylinders, what never loses momentum is Thomasin McKenzie’s mesmerising performance as the innocent Ellie Turner. She is an immediately likable and relatable character who we’ve all met and/or been at some point in our lives: sweet and naïve and something of a pushover, but with a burning desire to prove herself. She brings a subtlety and a depth to a character who could have so easily been a passive wet blanket, and proves once again she is an up-and-coming actress to take seriously. Playing the opposite side of Ellie’s coin is Anya Taylor-Joy as young starlet Sandie, and whilst she also gives it her absolute best shot performance-wise, her character lacks the humanising details that make McKenzie’s role seem like a real person. She is instead saddled to a pretty generic lost innocence narrative, and whilst she is ultimately portrayed in a sympathetic light, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an early version where that wasn’t the case.
Matt Smith is utterly despicable and intentionally so as Sandie’s seedy lover Jack, whilst Terence Stamp brings the bravado and gravitas you expect from Terence Stamp as a mysterious patron at the bar Ellie works at. Michael Ajao brings some needed levity as Ellie’s concerned classmate John, in spite of the two lacking much romantic chemistry, and though Synnøve Karlsen shows a lot of potential as her narcissistic rival Jocasta, she quickly becomes just a snide bully who leaves little impact on the narrative. The only other standout performance, and it’s a bittersweet one at that, is the late Diana Rigg as Ellie’s landlady Miss Collins. She better than anyone knows what kind of movie she’s in and belts it to the back row, delivering a worthy final curtain for such an icon of British film and television.
No matter what scale or style he’s working with, Edgar Wright is a technical perfectionist and has a passion for the art and history of cinema that make his movies feel so unique and yet immediately recognisable. Whilst Last Night in Soho certainly wears its references to the likes of Dario Argento and Nicholas Roeg on its sleeves, it doesn’t completely overwhelm the film’s aesthetic in what is easily Wright’s most restrained piece of filmmaking yet. It still has that music video quality that makes his films so breezy and accessible, but it’s far less frenetic and focuses a lot more on mood and tone than flashy camera tricks or synchronised editing. The cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung is especially impressive, perfectly capturing the neon-drenched sordid streets of Soho in both past and present form, and the vintage costumes are absolutely to die for; I could easily see some of Sandie’s outfits becoming go-tos for those how want to go to a Halloween party looking a little more glam. As you’d expect, the soundtrack choices are an idiosyncratic mix of niche 60s rock-and-roll with a few stone-cold classics thrown in, whilst Steven Price’s score gives it that little extra push of B-movie twang.
There’s a lot to like or even love about Last Night in Soho, but in the end it’s a style-over-substance romp with a lot of ideas but no final thesis. There’s a fantastic movie in here somewhere, one that explores its timely subject matter and feminist undertones in a meaningful way, but here they’re treated like window dressing to the technical aspects when it should be the other way around. Wright is far too meticulous a director to make anything less than aesthetically excellent, but as a writer he feels completely out of his depth here without his usual bag of tricks. After making so many films that explored masculinity in various forms to hilarious effect, it’s understandable why he may have wanted to change perspective, but Wright doesn’t have anything meaningful to say about this subject matter beyond obvious platitudes like “showbiz is toxic” and “London is great but also kind of sucks.” It’s disheartening to say it because it’s clear he wants to get away from that image, but this may have played better if it dropped its pretentions and just embraced being a self-aware B movie instead of the “elevated horror” version of one. Then again, if that’s what you’re after, you should probably just watch Malignant instead.
FINAL VERDICT: 6.5/10