Review: Last Night in Soho

Director: Edgar Wright

Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Thomasin McKenzie, Diana Rigg

At the beginning of Lewis Allen’s 1944 haunted house picture The Uninvited, Ray Milland’s Roderick Fitzgerald advises us just why the Cornish seem so preoccupied with eerie tales and superstitions, “not because there are most ghosts here than other places, mind you. It’s just that people who live here about are strangely aware of them.” A truism then, perhaps, and a truism now?

It’s present day, but supernaturally sensitive Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) wishes it weren’t. In a cosy corner of Redruth, she romanticises the pop culture artifacts of the 1960s. Moving to university in London to pursue her dreams of becoming a fashion designer, however, Eloise finds her sensibilities at odds with the more modern and hostile attitudes of her peers. Fleeing student halls, she takes up residence in a Soho bedsit let by Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg). To her surprise and elation, her new boarding room seems to act as a conduit to the past. Before you can say Goodnight, Sweetheart Eloise begins reliving the swinging ’60s in her dreams, through the eyes of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a wannabe pop starlet trying to crack the city’s thriving club scene.

Eloise and Sandie share big dreams in both senses, but as Eloise starts to remodel herself in the image of her nighttime alter ego, the dream starts souring into a nightmare. Sandie’s manager Jack (Matt Smith) doesn’t quite make good on his charm and promises. And, as troubling, Eloise starts to exhibit physical repercussions from her time-traveling excursions. A bleed in time and reality starts costing her, particularly in social situations.

Riding high on the critical success of his energised music documentary The Sparks Brothers, Edgar Wright’s ode to both the Italian giallo and London’s swinging ’60s arrives with the kinetic filmmaker in favour, and the letdowns of The World’s End and Baby Driver somewhat obscured. But memories of Wright’s style-over-substance past come flooding back, quicker than the lives (and deaths) that haunt his latest picture.

Granted, the trademark freneticism of Wright’s prior fantasy films has been dialed back in favour of some more classically cinematic sequences. Much like James Wan’s Malignant, deference to the lurid lighting schemes of Dario Argento are mostly surface touches. While knife-wielding murder becomes a key element of Wright’s sordid fairy tale, the overall story is more ghoulish in nature, as Eloise is pursued by faceless apparitions that recall the damned brethren who stalk Candace Hilligoss in Herk Harvey’s 1962 masterpiece Carnival of Souls. Unfortunately, Wright’s ghouls manifest in a mire of smudgy CG more sorry than scary.

After a quaint if plodding start, the middle of the film gains a sure-footed confidence and flare that Wright struggles to maintain as things grow more pointedly paranormal. A cursory gaze at Edgar Wright’s 1,000 movie recommendations list for MUBI reveals his own personal fixation with British cinema of the ’60s, and casting the likes of Terence Stamp, Diana Rigg and Rita Tushingham in supporting roles must have felt like a particular coup for this exercise in yesteryear magpieing.

Last Night in Soho reaches a stylistic pinnacle as Eloise becomes swept up in the trappings of Swinging London, and Taylor-Joy – superb as Sandie – resurrects a kind of nostalgic glamour that casts this film as Wright’s own riposte to his friend Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.

This mid-section boasts some of the most technically accomplished showmanship of Wright’s career – and there are many pleasures in such froth – but the longer the picture goes on, the more underwhelming things become. The third act bets all on a switcheroo,  except, given what’s happening to Eloise and Wright’s heavy-handed signposting, the reveal is neither impressively staged or surprising. The finale gets bogged down in unnecessarily long-winded exposition, as though someone retooled Suspiria as an episode of Midsomer Murders.

The film’s (sub?)textual observations on sex work and the overall view on women’s agency is both basic and regressive. Sandie – as an encapsulation of female sexual power in the 1960s – is a glossy and powerful totem, for a while. But the one-note victimhood that follows when Jack leads her into Soho’s seedier underbelly robs her of any will to save herself. It effectively bursts the bubble, granted, exposing the false-promises of her glamorous dreams, but it takes her from one extreme to another. Like the neon light that floods Eloise’s bedsit with saturated red or blue, there’s no grading or nuance. It’s one thing or the other, at full tilt.

A handful of the performances buoy us through Wright’s leisurely London mystery. As mentioned, Taylor-Joy fully understands the assignment. Stamp rustles up sparkle and menace in equal measure. And, though labored with a cloying and squeaky accent, Mackenzie throws her all into Eloise and makes her a plucky and sympathetic heroine. There are mixed reports elsewhere, however, particularly for Michael Ajao, whose sweet student John comes off as a bizarrely simpering and twee doormat. To his credit, it is the role as written and directed. You could let a lot of air out of Last Night on Soho and much of it surrounds him.

Wright displays a love/hate fascination with London here that is as personal as Tarantino’s infatuation with ’60s Hollywood. The two pictures do spark off of one another, like a kind of strange cinematic conversation happening beneath the cacophony of endless release schedules, film festivals and awards shows. Making films for yourself and to impress your friends is as good a reason as any. But to those outside of this loop, Last Night in Soho is likely to read as an inviting if uneven experience. As with much of Wright’s work, the surface gloss is immaculate, but peel it away and you’re left with nothing but ghosts.

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