Last Night in Soho (2021)
Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho is the writer/director’s first work of genuine horror and it’s in many ways unlike his previous movies, both in good ways and not as good. We follow an aspiring fashion student, Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), as she leaves her small town for the bright lights of London. She has difficulty fitting in with the snobby city girls at school and her new apartment might be haunted. When she goes to sleep, under the alternating neon light filtering through her window, she wakes up back in the 1960s and takes the form of another woman, Sandie (Ana Taylor-Joy). Eloise investigates what happened to Sandie and grows increasingly consumed with solving the crimes of the past and possibly getting lost in it as well.
This is the least Wright-ian movie when it comes to his signature sense of frenetic visual decadence and creative, intuitive editing. This is a more modulated and patient movie, one that doesn’t ape the style of other flashy genre movies for post-modern, meta-textual in-joke commentary. If you had told me that Last Night in Soho was directed by another filmmaker, I would have believed you. It’s a different kind of story and movie, co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917, Penny Dreadful), and while mysteries have factored into other Wright films, this one is built upon one. The technical recreation of the swinging ‘60s in London is impressive on every level. The film has an acute sense of style that doesn’t overshadow the unsettling mood of its horror. There’s a period of discovery that keeps your attention into the first half. When Eloise travels back in time, she’s attached as the reflection of Sandie, and this creates very beguiling and imaginative images, like watching Eloise keep pace with Sandie down a mirrored staircase. It made me start to mentally dissect the filming ingenuity, even though it was likely filming the scene in separate pieces, but part of me wondered if they just got the two actresses precise at timing one another’s movements. There are some knockout disturbing images to crank up the horror, like hands reaching out from all manner of spaces, and the grey faces of male phantoms blurring together. There is one visual shot that is so striking on multiple levels, watching the panic of eyes in the reflection of a knife and it plunges in and out of the frame, only increasingly bloodier. Even though I’d consider Soho to be perhaps less visually audacious as Wright’s past works, it’s still a cut above even the better giallo genre homages.
Last Night in Soho is a clear homage but the spooky story ultimately gets caught up in its own machinations and narrative off-ramps. Once the central premise is established by the end of Act One, I was ready for the movie to develop its plot by establishing further rules as we explore the mystery. Is it time travel? I thought if this was established the movie could go several different enticing routes. Perhaps Eloise is going to solve the 1960s tragedy by collecting evidence and investigating witnesses through two different time periods, including people and leads that are lost in present-day. Perhaps Eloise was going to steal the fashions of the 1960s she found as inspirations for her class assignments, becoming more and more dependent on taking the ideas of others rather than trusting her own creative instincts. Is it physical or psychic possession? Perhaps Eloise is finding a freedom in pretending to be someone else and gets addicted to that power and possibility. Perhaps it’s a partnership where both women interact to resolve an unresolved murder case and avenge a past wrong. Perhaps it’s Sandie who discovers the new freedom of being able to be alive in modern-day and it becomes a battle over who will have dominance over Eloise’s body and soul. What about Eloise seeing her dead mother? Does this mean she herself has a special connection to the dead? Will her mother follow her to aid in her safety? Or could Eloise use her trips to the past to find her grandmother? Could this be a manner of learning more about her grandmother while they were similar ages? There are many routes that Wright could have gone, and I would have been interested by any of them with careful plotting and natural development to layer the intrigue and complications. To my surprise, Last Night in Soho doesn’t really clarify or develop its out-of-body setup with more rules.
Without additional rules or development from the plot, it comes down to watching the personal impact this has on Eloise, and at least there the film provides enough of its attention. She’s becoming haunted by the tragic story of Sandie. The movie is very much about the horror of rape culture and how it can traumatize for decades after. It may have been postponed a year due to COVID but it feels very much in response to the Me Too movement that raised awareness of sexual harassment and assault. For Wright’s position, his last movie, 2017’s Baby Driver, starred two actors that have since had their careers affected by reports of predatory behavior, Kevin Spacey and Ansel Elgort, and it almost feels like Soho is a reflective response, in a manner of speaking. It’s Wright’s latent acknowledging how ensnared one can find themselves in an industry or system that profits from the exploitation, humiliation, and silencing of women. Naturally, Hollywood has been an exploitation factory from its very troubled start, with many young women arriving with stars in their eyes only to be taken advantage of by hungry men looking for their next fix. This acknowledgement is nothing new, but Soho feels like repackaging the woman-terrorized-by-unknown giallo films into something more socially relevant and reflective.
The story of Sandie is meant to be an intentional stand-in for thousands of other women who have suffered similar fates at the hands of predatory men promising fame and fortune. It has an undeniable horror, but it’s also somewhat limited with its impact or intrigue because Sandie is kept chiefly as symbol. I didn’t find the extended excursions with her in the past to be as interesting as I’d hoped because Sandie herself isn’t presented as a multi-dimensional figure. That doesn’t mean she’s undeserving of sympathy, it just means I found her to be rather boring. We don’t really learn more about her, until a third act twist that creates some very uncomfortable and potentially troublesome questions. There was a moment where I thought, “Is Wright really trying to make me root for…?” and it did not work. The ending twist feels more like the kind of thing you’d find in the hacky direct-to-DVD version of this kind of genre homage, not from the likes of Wright, a master study on genre recreation. The story of Sandie serves as an industry cautionary tale but by the end I don’t know if Eloise or the audience have learned anything more meaningful other than bad things happen to women.
This is Dame Diana Rigg’s last performance. She died on September 10, 2020 at the age of 82 (the movie opens with a dedication, “For Diana”). The woman who came to fame from the BBC’s Avengers spy series in the 1960s and renewed resurgence from playing the tart-tongued Queen of Thorns on Game of Thrones has a final role that lets her go out in grand style. By the end, it might not fully make as much sense, and invites all sort of questions that tear away the logic of staying in her living conditions for 50 years, but it’s fun to watch this octogenarian go all-in on the messy horror. She’s also the best actor in the movie. Too many other characters are meant as symbols, stand-ins, or conflations, and in fact I wish other characters had been conflated but that’s going into potential spoiler territory to detail. McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit) is a solid lead but not as much is asked of her that could have been. I was expecting her character to become more mentally and emotionally undone, though she sells her fear with effective wide-eyed terror. Matt Smith looks alarmingly identical in 2021 as he did in 2011 with Doctor Who.
I mean no great offense to say that Last Night in Soho is the least of Wright’s impressive and exciting filmography. It’s a solid genre movie with style and intrigue, and while it doesn’t live up to the tantalizing possibilities of its premise, as a horror movie, as a character study, and as a genre homage, it’s still plenty entertaining and with a relevant message about how often women in our society have been the sacrificial victims, not just in the movies.
Nate’s Grade: B