Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy in Last Night in Soho (2021)
Things aren’t so great when you’re downtown in Last Night in Soho. Edgar Wright’s latest film is a mishmash of homages to eye-popping, twisted European horror-thrillers. Dario Argento’s Suspiria comes to mind with the vibrant colors, creepy exterior locations, and visual motifs of glamorous characters in dazzling settings. The story follows two young women from different eras of London whose lives collide like a nightmare come true. Aspiring fashion designer Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) travels from the English countryside to attend a prestigious design school in present-day London. Feeling out of place among her dorm roommates, she rents a flat on her own. At nightfall in her new place, she is mysteriously able to enter the 1960s, where she meets a wannabe singer named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). Through vivid visions, Ellie finds inspiration for her work in fashion. But the allure of 60s London is not what it appears to be. As the truth about Sandie comes out, Ellie is wanting desperately to save her from her troubles. Dangerous ideologies and years of patriarchal oppression cause a deeply unpleasant chain of events that haunt characters through the swinging 60s and contemporary gloom. But the clashing of worlds only accentuates Last Night in Soho’s lack of a coherent core to bring ideas together.
Edgar Wright blends exaggerated mystery with campy giallo horror, and uses interesting mirror imagery to show a seamless transition between two eras. The visual contrasts between present-day and 60s London are well-done. The former has a grey and gloomy atmosphere, while the latter turns on the bright lights and swirls of colorful backgrounds. Pops of color often dazzle the screen when the eras blend and nightmarish elements begin to haunt Ellie’s waking life. As for why Ellie is given a window into this period of time, that is a mystery. Ellie is on the brink of a new opportunity in fashion. She’s in a brand new city, and her visions of Sandie provide a muse for her sketches at school. But all goes horribly wrong when the visions become more grizzly and disturbing. Wright explores the seedy underground of a nightclub where young women are being exploited and mistreated by gross, violent men. Among them Jack (Matt Smith), who promises Sandie a successful stage career and watches callously as she falls into an upsetting and enraging series of incidents that the romanticized era sweeps into silence. Ellie’s visions pull back the curtain with troubling implications and circumstances. The more parallels she finds in the present-day, the more she latches onto Sandie, wanting so desperately to save this young girl from danger.
Thomasin McKenzie in Last Night in Soho (2021)
The mirroring identities of Ellie and Sandie feel like a half-realized idea that never truly reaches fruition. While the concept makes for strong visual sequences, there is a disconnect between the imagery and progression of the characters in this story. Wright’s over reliance on ambiguity encourages most of the characters to go in vague directions. By the end of the film, there is so much left unsaid about Ellie and Sandie beyond the plot devices they are more in service of. The disappointment in not getting to know more of Sandie in particular leads to a climax that falls flat in its impact. Though with talent such as Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy, both do their absolute best to bring the characters to life in a memorable way. To a greater extent and with more to do, McKenzie continues to impress with another strong performance. Tayloy-Joy is a star channeling the mystique of old Hollywood glamour. Plus there’s a great overall ensemble, including the late Diana Rigg who shows what an effortlessly magnetic talent she was. The cast embrace the rollercoaster of Last Night in Soho, with far more lows than highs, and its final-act silliness.
The subjects of sexual exploitation and entertainment industry horrors are handled in a questionable way. There is a lot going on thematically that Wright addresses, but the messily handled story undercuts the weight of these subject matters. The story builds to an underwhelming turn of events, lacking the penny drop effect that Wright appears to be going for. The characters of Last Night in Soho become more and more like background pieces. The film misses the opportunity of spending more time with Ellie’s insights. What she’s going through mentally, particularly after the loss of her mother, is greatly overpowered by Wright’s stylized choices. While the style makes for some neat swinging 60s sequences, Last Night in Soho gets lost with how to tell a coherent story.