Back in 2017, I confessed I was caught off-guard by Baby Driver’s startling deviation from the silliness, irreverence, and absurdity that had until that point defined Edgar Wright’s career. Though the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy was hardly bereft of dramatic depth (with Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End in particular conveying some surprisingly profound themes regarding maturity and responsibility, not to mention the pathetic outcome of failing to cross the threshold between boyhood and manhood), at the end of the day it was still firmly rooted in comedy territory. With Baby Driver, Wright shifted gears (heh) and delivered a fun but comparatively grounded action flick, downplaying his signature humour and rapid-fire dialogue in favour of something more stylish and altogether cinematic. In short, Edgar Wright had finally moved out of Simon Pegg’s apartment and grown up (it happens to the best of us). I eventually came around to appreciating and even admiring Baby Driver, and though I was undeniably saddened that Wright’s days of pitting a hapless Scott Pilgrim against a bonkers world were officially behind him, I found myself looking forward to what he’d come up with next.
Now we have Last Night in Soho, an impressive attempt at a psychological horror that completely dispenses with all of Wright’s characteristic lightheartedness and sense of fun, replacing them with the sort of dark surrealism that Jordan Peele’s employed in his own creative self-reinvention. I say ‘attempt’ because while Wright’s direction is on point, his foray into thriller territory sadly leaves a little to be desired.
Be forewarned – spoilers abound in plenteousness.
The opening sequence, a nice little dance routine set to Peter & Gordon’s ‘A World Without Love,’ introduces Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), a dreamy young Cornwall local who is enamored with the music and culture of the 1960s. She is on her way to London – the biiiiiiiiiiig city! – to pursue a career in fashion design, a passion her mother once shared before becoming overwhelmed and committing suicide. Eloise’s devoted grandmother expresses concern that Eloise may succumb to the same… instability, but Eloise asserts she’s far more mentally sound than her mother, whose apparition she sees in her bedroom mirror. Adjusting to life in the Swinging City proves challenging, however, so much so that Eloise soon vacates her rowdy dormitory and rents a bedroom from the flinty Ms. Collins (Dianna Rigg in her final film role, RIP), who drops enigmatic hints of a past that will surely factor in the plot later on.
Like a secret marriage pact with House Martell, for instance?
It is in these dusty, memory-laden lodgings that Eloise begins having vivid dreams of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a vivacious young woman living in the 60s with ambitions of becoming a singer. Eloise quickly becomes enamored with Sandie, emulating her fashion choices and hairstyle and even declining date offers in order to monitor her rise to stardom. Only, Sandie doesn’t quite achieve the stardom she seeks. Wonder quickly turns to horror as Eloise witnesses Sandie suffer abuse after abuse at the hands of predatory men who are more interested in her body than her voice, until she is apparently murdered by her own manager turned pimp. As the ghosts of the past begin to bleed into the present, an increasingly haunted Eloise becomes desperate to find out what happened to Sandie and bring whoever is responsible to justice. The resulting story plays out something like Midnight in Paris meets Promising Young Woman – which may be part of the problem, because I didn’t actually like Promising Young Woman.
On the positive side of things, Last Night in Soho looks and sounds great. Wright creates an alluring mise en scène for his depiction of the 1960s, capturing the glitz and glam of the lavish nightclub scene that entices would-be performers with promises of renown. Eloise is entranced by what she sees through Sandie’s eyes and so are we… until we’re ushered into the seedy backstage corridors and the enchantment is stripped away, revealing the filth and decay lurking beneath the glittering veneer of an industry largely predicated on the callous exploitation of young hopefuls.
The use of mirrors to link Eloise and Sandie across time is an impressive technical achievement, one that was evidently executed without relying on digital effects or extensive green screens. As soon as Eloise steps into Sandie’s world, she recedes into the surrounding wall mirrors, tracking and observing her idol’s movements as a reflection (the Candyman sequel this summer did something similar in revealing its otherwise invisible antagonist solely through reflective surfaces).
The only thing that lurks behind me in mirrors is my alcoholism…
Also, the use of garish reds and blues (standard emergency colours) during Eloise’s hallucinatory spells was an interesting choice, one that effectively heightens the sense of danger and panic as ghouls both real and spectral close in on the two women. Finally, it goes without saying that the performances are top notch, with Thomasin McKenzie (who showcased her low-key comedic skills in Jojo Rabbit) portraying an earnest and sympathetic lead and the lovely Anya Taylor-Joy (who still wows me in The Witch) proving she can do pretty much anything, up to and including give a captivating rendition of Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown.’
Sights and sounds aside, Last Night in Soho is ultimately undone by the fundamental disconnect between its past and present timelines, nevermind Eloise and Sandie themselves. This is a shame, because thematically, Eloise’s obsession with the 1960s and the gradual revelation that the past harbors some pretty dark secrets could serve as a poignant commentary on the dangers of nostalgia and gazing back in time through rose-colored glasses. Unfortunately, these ideas are never developed because the story doesn’t properly establish a connection between its two heroines.
Take Eloise — besides the fleeting implication that she inherited her retro musical tastes from her grandmother, we’re never given a sense of why she is so entranced with this era, nor is her fascination with Sandie ever really justified. The differences between them are astronomical and remain so until the curtain closes. Sandie is pursuing a singing career; Eloise, fashion design. This is apples and oranges as far as vocations go, especially since nothing Eloise sees in the past has much effect on her present hopes and aspirations. In Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson’s Gil reacts to stumbling into the 1920s at first with bewilderment, then excitement as he realizes the impact his exposure to the likes of Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and the Fitzgeralds will have on his budding writing career. His continued frolics with these Roaring Twenties expatriates shapes him both personally and professionally; Eloise, on the other hand, barely reacts to her nocturnal excursions into the past nor do Sandie’s experiences inspire her own endeavors in any meaningful way (she copies Sandie’s dress in class and that’s about it).
As an aside, can we get a standalone film with Corey Stoll reprising his role as Ernest Hemingway?
Eloise is drawn to Sandie for her confidence and flair, certainly, but besides being shy and introverted she’s never shown to lack anything Sandie possesses. In fact, her instructors are consistently encouraging of her progress and she even attracts the attention of a nice young man (Attack the Block’s Michael Ajao) who’s interested in her for who she is– which is more than can be said for poor Sandie. From the moment Eloise enters London, the movie exposes a nasty undercurrent of sexually-predacious men ready and willing to prey on pretty young girls, or at the very least make unwanted advances. Mostly, this comes into play on Sandie’s side of the looking glass — besides a few leering glances and lewd comments cast her way, Eloise is never shown to be in any real danger from the men around her. She’s creeped out at times, absolutely, but this is small beans compared to the fate that befalls Sandie. Their lives are radically different, their paths wildly divergent, and their fates in total contrast to one another. Sandie set out to be a singer and failed, whereas Eloise set out to be a fashion designer and succeeded — without any real help from Sandie, which is perhaps the movie’s greatest oversight (in the end, even Eloise’s affinity for fashion design and Golden Oldies ends up being completely incidental).
It’s honestly amazing to me how a movie co-written by the same man who cleverly concealed the entire plot of Shaun of the Dead inside a throwaway line could ever script twists this sloppy. There are two major reveals waiting in the wings in Last Night in Soho, but the only viewers they’ll succeed in surprising are those who have never seen a movie before.
The movie would have us believe that a man credited only as the Silver-Haired Gentleman (Terance Stamp in what may be a continuation of his role in The Limey) is the present day incarnation of the man who murdered Sandie decades earlier. However, his behavior is so brazenly suspicious and overtly slimy that he might as well have been named Redford Herring for how obvious it is that he isn’t actually the man responsible. In addition, the hamfisted exposition dump that officially absolves his character of any wrongdoing might very well be the laziest explanation of What Was Really Going On I’ve ever seen. It also results in something of a paradox, because if this gentleman wasn’t really a bad guy then there was no reason for him to act the way he did other than to arouse Eloise’s suspicions for dramatic effect. This tactic worked in the comedic context of Hot Fuzz because Timothy Dalton’s Simon Skinner acts so blatantly guilty from the beginning that the reveal that he actually is involved in a murderous conspiracy really does come as a surprise, but here? Not so much. Even Baby Driver managed to catch you off-balance by setting up Kevin Spacey and Jamie Foxx as primary and secondary antagonists, only to dispatch them and elevate Jon Hamm as the final boss instead.
While the reveal of What Really Happened to Sandie is marginally less obvious, it’s still about as shocking as the revelation that the two pieces of toast you ate for breakfast were your missing slices of bread the whole time, which mysteriously vanished after venturing inside the toaster.
Last Night in Soho isn’t bad, it’s just disappointing, especially considering the narrative heights Wright ascended to with The World’s End (a film that resonates with me for multiple reasons). It has a lot it could say about systemic sexual abuse in the entertainment industry, the pitfalls of blind nostalgia, and the reconciliation of past traumas with present behavior, but in the end it doesn’t say much of anything.
Now, if you’re looking for an excellent, highly effective crime film where Terance Stamp’s performance is actually compelling, go check out Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey.