Edgar Wright’s sense of style has never been in question. Baby Driver, putting aside the presence of Kevin Spacey and Ansel Elgort, has a propulsive sense of forward momentum, a thoughtful use of musical cues, and the hottest haircut Jon Hamm has ever had. The Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy is a thoughtful sendup of various genre tropes, and you could make a strong case that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the best graphic novel adaptation of all time, with a delightful against-type turn from Chris Evans that reminds of his brilliance when playing scumbags. (I said what I said.)
Wright’s latest, Last Night in Soho, furthers his particular auteur preferences. The soundtrack is deep, the clothes are groovy, there’s bisexual lighting everywhere. Like Midnight in Paris, Last Night in Soho follows a character who longs for the good old days, which in this film is London in the 1960s. For about half of its run time, Last Night in Soho is like stepping into the past and wandering through a dream—both of which its protagonist does. In terms of ensuring that we experience the same wonder and engagement as its main character, Last Night in Soho succeeds. But zooming out and away from the outfits, the music, and all the production design details at which Wright excels, and even when considering the anti-nostalgia toward which Last Night in Soho eventually pivots, there is a muddled quality to this film that irritates.
It is entertaining but almost illusory, with little nuance for either its characters or its big themes about ambition and misogyny. I hate the gender essentialism of “Female characters written by men are always superficial,” because I truly believe that a core responsibility and undertaking of art is to explore empathy, and theoretically, empathy can come from anyone for anyone else. But man, does Last Night in Soho fall into a certain familiar trap. Does that make the film’s performances, in particular another dazzling turn from Anya Taylor-Joy, ineffective? Not entirely; I’m not sure anyone could dampen the singularity of Taylor-Joy’s presence in a film that is so perfectly suited to her unique aesthetic qualities. (Read: She looks great in mod fashions.)
But it does mean that Last Night in Soho, perhaps more than any other Wright film, had me rolling my eyes at various moments that are meant to play as sincere or insightful or revelatory. When it becomes necessary for Last Night in Soho to criticize the time and place for which it has secured our adoration, it’s way clunkier than Taylor-Joy boogeying around the dancefloor, but about on par with the generic CGI that is used for the film’s horror scenes. The deeper message Wright wants to explore doesn’t quite play as well as the artifice he uses to get there.
Last Night in Soho first follows teen Eloise, or “Ellie” (Thomasin McKenzie), who lives with her grandmother after her mother’s death. Ellie has always had a bit of a sixth sense, and can sense entities (… ghosts) that others can’t. That’s one quality that makes her different from her peers, and the other is her affection for, and possibly even obsession with, the 1960s. She listens to the music from the time and, as an aspiring fashion designer, creates clothes for herself that are in line with that time. When she moves from her rural small town to London to attend the London College of Fashion, she’s hopeful for a fresh start and for new friends.
As soon as she steps foot in London, though, things begin to go wrong. Her taxi driver hits on her. Her new roommates turn out to be judgmental jerks who seize on the personal information Ellie offers and mercilessly mock her for it. Classmate John (Michael Ajao) is kind, and her teacher Ms. Tobin (Elizabeth Berrington) is supportive. But Ellie feels lost enough that she moves out of her dorm and into a room for rent in Soho—an attic space that is flooded by red and blue light from the sign of the French restaurant next door, and that hasn’t been updated much by landlord Ms. Collins (the late Diana Rigg). The furniture is older, the landline phone only dials the emergency number, and Ms. Collins has a strict no-male-visitors rule.
But all of that is fine by Ellie once she learns that each night, after she falls asleep, she is transported to the ’60s London she’s so coveted. Vintage cars, vintage clothes, vintage drinks—it’s everything Ellie has adored for years. And in these explorations, Ellie is both herself and not herself: She simultaneously inhabits the body of, but also gazes from the outside upon, Sandie (Taylor-Joy), a young woman who has moved to London to be a singer. Sandie is stylish and gorgeous, attracting looks and solicitations from practically every man she meets. When she hooks up with Jack (Matt Smith), who defends her from one of those gross guys, they seem like a perfect match—one that Ellie loves to observe night after night.
As Ellie’s time in the past begins to bleed into her time in the present, her “real” life suffers. And this turning point is where Last Night in Soho demands the most of our patience, and delivers somewhat diminishing returns. At first, Wright nails the effect. Taylor-Joy is a vivacious, charismatic delight, and she plays Sandie with just enough hopeful vulnerability that the character, despite being underwritten, feels real. Smith is doing his whole Lost River thing again, and as someone who enjoyed Ryan Gosling’s cinematic mimicry of Nicolas Winding Refn, Smith mimicking himself is acceptable. Wright makes excellent use of kaleidoscopic visual effects, mirrors, and doubling, and even if his interior world-building contradicts itself regarding how Ellie’s time travel works, how he collapses her and Sandie’s characters together serves a narrative purpose. Sam Claflin pops by for a scene in which he’s devastatingly, achingly handsome, and we deserve that.
But once Last Night in Soho begins to drag—which is right about when the film enters its horror phase—it drags hard. McKenzie is a talented actress, and she excels at reactivity: wide eyes, gasping sighs, frozen physicality. When the film demands her character be proactive, though, there is a gap between the focused energy of Taylor-Joy’s performance and the slightly less nuanced vibe of McKenzie’s, so two characters who should be in simpatico don’t quite gel. The CGI effects, which the film heavily relies on its latter half, are so murky that they practically overshadow the great giallo stuff with which Wright plays. The film gets caught in a certain narrative loop for about a half-hour that might make you loathe Ellie (I certainly did!), and there is one particular element of Last Night in Soho that is handled in such a brutally tone-deaf, emotionally cheap manner that I cannot believe more people aren’t talking about it. Truly, the level of my cringing … it was a lot.
More than anything, Last Night in Soho ultimately is squashed by the weight of how deliberately Wright is really trying to do something different from his norm here, and how much he stumbles over the execution of that attempt. On the one hand, a critique of the comfort of days gone by has recurringly been a component of Wright’s work, and he attempts to add a new layer to that approach in Last Night in Soho. On the other hand, the way Wright goes about proving that he’s more than just style unintentionally made me long for his aesthetics alone, divorced from the superficial criticisms and frustratingly simplistic characterizations he also provides. “I know what you’ve been through,” one character tells another in Last Night in Soho, and Wright’s biggest mistake is his assumption that depicting misogyny is enough to further the conversation around combating it.
Last Night in Soho was reviewed of the 2021 Virginia Film Festival. It opens in theaters nationwide on October 29, 2021 and is available on digital as of November 18th.
Image sources (in order of posting): Focus Features, Focus Features