Last Night in Soho
Edgar Wright sashays back to the swinging 60s with his first psychological thriller, which boasts exceptional casting, a savvy soundtrack and gorgeously lurid look.
Edgar Wright must own a killer record collection. Weaving the perfect playlists into his films has ranked high among the British writer/director's trademarks ever since he made such a horror-comedy splash with Shaun of the Dead, and his own love of music is frequently mirrored by his protagonists, too. This is the filmmaker who set a zombie-killing scene to Queen's 'Don't Stop Me Now', and had characters wield vinyl as weapons. He made zoning out the world via iPod — and teeing up exactly the right track for the right moment — a key trait of Baby Driver's eponymous getaway driver. Earlier in 2021, Wright also turned his avid fandom for Sparks into his delightful first documentary The Sparks Brothers, because wearing his love for his favourite songs on his sleeves infiltrates everything he makes. So, the fact that his second film of this year is about a giddy devotee of 60s tunes really doesn't come as the slightest surprise.
Last Night in Soho takes its name from an era-appropriate song that gets a spin in the film, naturally. It boasts a cleverly compiled soundtrack teeming with hits from the period, and has one of its central figures — called Sandie, like singer Sandie Shaw, who croons '(There's) Always Something There to Remind Me' on that very soundtrack — seek chanteuse stardom. As Wright is known to do, his latest movie also sports sequences that could double as music videos, and possesses a supple sense of rhythm that makes his picture virtually dance across the screen. It's a feature shaped by music, made better by music, and that recognises that music can make anyone feel like they can do anything. A partly swinging 60s-set thriller that adores the giallo films of the time with equal passion, it also flits between a cinematic banger on par with the glorious tracks it peppers throughout and the movie equivalent of a routine needle drop.
Cilla Black, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield: these are the kind of talents that Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie, The Power of the Dog) can't get enough of, even though she's a Gen Z aspiring fashion designer; they're also the type of stars that aforementioned blonde bombshell Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Queen's Gambit) wants to follow onto London's stages. Last Night in Soho starts with its wannabe fashionista, who's first seen donning her own 60s-inspired designs in her Cornwall bedroom that's plastered with posters and pictures from the period, and also dancing to 'Peter & Gordon's 1964 track 'A World Without Love'. Soon, Eloise is off to college in the big and, hopefully, working towards the fashion world. Then she meets Sandie, but only in her dreams. Actually, as she slumbers, she becomes Sandie — and navigates her chiffon-adorned quest for stardom, her breathy 'Downtown' covers and her thorny relationship with slippery bar manager Jack (Matt Smith, Official Secrets).
Some of Last Night in Soho's most dazzling scenes play with these doppelgänger characters, and with the time-travelling dreamscape where they both exist, as if Wright is helming a musical. The choreography — both by McKenzie and Taylor-Joy, playing chalk-and-cheese roles, and by the film's lithe and glossy cinematography — is stunning. The effect is mesmerising, as well as whip-smart in tapping into the feature's ongoing musing on identity. This is also a horror movie and a mystery, however, so exploring what's behind these nocturnal visions is the primary focus. As a mousy girl bullied by her roommate (Synnøve Karlsen, Medici) to the point of leaping into the too-good-to-be-true Soho attic studio leased by the cranky but obliging Ms Collins (Diana Rigg, Game of Thrones), it's easy to see why Eloise flees into her dreams. But the who, what, why and how of it all — when and were clearly being answered already — isn't as simple as pure retro escapism.
Eloise and Wright must share another trait, other than being musicophiles: nostalgia for a time neither was alive to see. In charting Eloise's journey from growing up with her gran (Rita Tushingham, The Pale Horse) to being haunted by evening reveries that begin to infect her days, Wright packs Last Night in Soho with Quentin Tarantino-level references to pop culture of the era. The detail, cast, songs, fashion and borrowings from Italian horror cinema's giallo genre — including vivid colours, plenty of blood and a love of yellow hues, because that's what giallo translates as — all nod backwards cannily. Visually, the film is a lavish wonder, in fact; Chung Chung-hoon, who regularly lenses Park Chan-wook's work (see: Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, Thirst, Stoker and The Handmaiden) luxuriates in sights, spaces, textures, mirrors angles, spins and swoops.
Wright doesn't shy away from the 60s' sleaze, either, or from nightmarish men, objectified women and the lack of sexual agency for the latter. Scripting with 1917 Oscar nominee Krysty Wilson-Cairns, he confronts the seedier side of the period he otherwise places on a pedestal — but his first film about female protagonists is plodding rather than bold in trying to spin a feminist story. Last Night in Soho's lurid, adrenaline-fuelled shimmy with psychological thrills is still engaging, and gorgeous. Its eagerness to takes cues from Mulholland Drive is ambitious, although trying to emulate David Lynch rarely suits anyone. Still, there's more than a whiff of "is that it?" — and of cliche — to how it all culminates.
Even with its sensational sense of style, that underwhelming feeling might've invaded more of Last Night in Soho if Wright hadn't cast his leads so well. The 60s icons he's enlisted, including Rigg in her last role, Tushingham and Terence Stamp (Murder Mystery), all play their parts in the plot, but this is McKenzie and Taylor-Joy's show. Again, the scenes that pose the pair as reflections of each other in 60s nightclubs are spectacular. The performances they provide to match share other echoes, too; one initially innocent and wide-eyed, the other confident and determined at first, they find common ground in their characters' vulnerabilities. Life is definitely making Eloise and Sandie lonely, but as the women behind them linger where the neon signs are pretty, things can be great — for viewers, at least. Their efforts won't make audiences forget Last Night in Soho's troubles, but the film is so much brighter with them in it.