A statement like “Last Night in Soho is my least favorite Edgar Wright movie” is the equivalent of telling someone the stegosaurus is your least favorite dinosaur chicken nugget shape. They’re all yummy mouthfuls in the end, much like Wright’s dependable catalog of cinematic treats in varying presentations (Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz, Baby Driver) — although Last Night in Soho is the creative madman’s grandest mess in the name of ambition. Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy are stunners in this love-lost letter to 1960s London’s sleazy entertainment industry, although the blurriness between psychological horror lines becomes a bit too delusional. It’s exquisitely shot in terms of Giallo color shades, knife glimmers, and gushing bloodiness, but also an absolute tangle of intentions once the third act tries to reconcile so many ideas better represented by visuals than the screenplay.
McKenzie stars as small-town girl Eloise who gets accepted to London’s poshest art school to pursue a degree in fashion design. Upon arrival, she’s introduced to mean girls like roommate Jocasta (Synnove Karlsen), who drive Eloise away from rambunctious dormitory lifestyles. Eloise flees academic housing and rents an upstairs flat from Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg) to escape Jocasta’s inconsiderate behavior — she’ll tolerate the smell of garlic wafting from a French bistro next door. It’s a perfectly private arrangement until Eloise finds herself transported to 1960s London in her slumbering subconscious, taking the form of an aspiring blonde singer named Sandie (Taylor-Joy). At first, living her wildest fantasies — then waking to a constant nightmare.
Wright’s never slouched when setting a mood, and Last Night in Soho is no different. Eloise’s soundtrack of Dusty Springfield and The Kinks earns “old lady” comments from peers her age but inspires the seamless transitions each night as Eloise becomes Sandie. Mirrors reflect Eloise like she’s observing Sandie from behind zoo glass, costumes are the most luscious party gowns on drop-dead gorgeous wearers, and London’s underground becomes grimier than talent manager Jack’s (Matt Smith) greased-back hair. Lighting choices drench sequences in cherry-red neon venue lights or flickers from outside Eloise’s window where the restaurant sign flashes, accentuating the devilishness of smiles and darkness of shadows where monsters roam. It’s all so intoxicating a poison that Wright drips like an IV, infecting his story about following passions while Eloise learns the harsh truth about Sandie’s not-so-glamorous predicament.
Last Night in Soho starts with a clear delineation between fantasies and reality, but Wright struggles to control Eloise’s psychological breakdown of boundaries. As Eloise consciously hallucinates Sandie, Jack’s scowling face, and other suits who appear as Slenderman ghouls with distorted facial features, the “rules” begin to weaken. Wright and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns introduce Eloise’s deceased mother — a sufferer of emotional ailments who took her own life — as an excuse to insinuate Eloise herself might be “crazy.” Sadly, there’s no genuine desire to engage any further with mental health and suicide beyond giving an early reason for Eloise’s rattled nature until the second act all but abandons any relevance. It’s full-steam ahead into Hitchcockian outbursts from Eloise as she flees from visions of decades-old playboys or wealthy scum who reach with grabby hands.
That’s the nutty part about Last Night in Soho — scenes blaze onward under Wright’s illustrated prowess when horror takes hold. Eloise’s shabby attic hideaway becomes a prison where men once invaded, and she never feels safe. Sandie’s dance floor paranoias and survival tactics bleed into Eloise’s education as spirits haunt classrooms, libraries, and even nightclub Halloween parties. Specters stalk Eloise wherever she goes, and there’s a claustrophobic sense about London that strangles a young girl chasing a purpose less ordinary — like she’s punished for dreaming larger than countryside fences. Eloise’s lurking pursuers translate into haunted imagery that bursts through floorboards, smashes mirrors, and unleashes leery hordes of monotone womanizers from the depths of 1960s machismo toxicity. It’s some pretty magnificent metropolitan madness at times.
I don’t want to undersell McKenzie’s increasingly hysterical performance nor Taylor-Joy’s vixen of a victim in savage times. Last Night in Soho is their horror story as both characters wave knives, confront demons in pressed formal wear, and do whatever it takes to escape. McKenzie is the more shattered of the two, trying to pull Sandie from her loungefly nightmare while avoiding her own psychological collapse in modern times. Taylor-Joy breaks hearts as a vocalist who could silence a room with her presence and yet finds herself another forgotten talent to some man’s objectifying control. Matt Smith is a dashing 1960s bastard as another executive type who devours wide-eyed girls who’ll do anything for their big break. Terence Stamp is the elder embodiment of those private venue days when liberation met sexism. It’s all well-acted as worlds collide.
And yet, Last Night in Soho runs out of charm through good looks as Edgar Wright’s finale emphasizes cinematography indulgences over storytelling neatness. Eloise’s inescapable blending of historic periods exists in terms of tension requirements, which all become a bit daft. Rocksteady performances draw comparisons to Ryan Gosling’s Lost River in the way a tremendous cast (including Matt Smith again) act their way through a flimsily scripted work of art, which is how I’ll classify Last Night in Soho. The oldies soundtrack bumps and photography sears a burning crimson sensuality. Still, it’s all so haphazardly written as Eloise doesn’t find herself existing in either dreamland or reality — a narrative fault that overshadows an otherwise mesmerizing period thriller with style for miles.