Edgar Wright’s ‘Last Night in Soho’ Is a Fun, Phantasmagorical Fever Dream
Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho is a thriller-slash-giallo horror movie haunted by nostalgia for the swinging 60s of London, where stylishness and murder vie for center stage. “This is London,” one of the characters says. “Someone’s died in every room and on every street corner.” The ghosts of beautiful corpses, figurative and literal, are strewn throughout Wright’s agitated fever dream.
“Even now,” the director has said of the titular area in London, “it is on the border of a darker side of the underworld, which is still there in contemporary Soho in plain sight. And then going back, when I first moved to London, that side of life was a lot more prevalent, and then if you go back to the ‘60s, even more so. It’s not necessarily always a great place to be, and I guess that’s the point of the movie: that there is a danger of romanticizing the past…”
And romanticize he does, along with co-scriptwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and a cast that includes buzzy actresses Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace; JoJo Rabbit) and Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch; The Queen’s Gambit) alongside swinging 60’s mainstays Diana Rigg (of the original The Avengers series), Rita Tushingham (A Taste of Honey), and Terence Stamp (Far From the Madding Crowd; The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert).
McKenzie is Eloise, a budding fashion designer in thrall to the aesthetic of the 60s (passed along to her by her deceased mother), who arrives in London for her studies, rents a bedsit from the cantankerous Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg), and, before you know it, enters the seedy London underworld of the 60s through her nightly dreams where she bears witness to the destruction of Sandie (Taylor-Joy), a starry-eyed performer hellbent on becoming the next Petula Clark or Cilla Black, at the hands of her lover / manager Jack (Matt Smith), who at first props up her talent and then, like too many small-minded men before him, strips her of her dignity and becomes less of a manager and more of a pimp.
The plot, like many of the giallo horror films that infuse its sensibility, is lunacy on steroids. Yet Wright’s technical command is a wonder. The sequences where Eloise and Sandie first meet – reflecting the same movements, the actresses often replacing each other as a scene progresses – are a blissful mindfuck. Eloise is both witness and, occasionally, doppelgänger; the country mouse being haunted by the city rats. McKenzie’s open-faced and comical naivete fits Eloise snugly, though as the film progresses Wright diminishes McKenzie’s performance by keeping her in extended states of hysteria with little opportunity for nuance (sometimes the character – like so many in horror movies before her – comes across as dumb). Taylor-Joy, because her character is more central in the backstory and less reactive, shines as Sandie (she’s been impressive in a number of roles in films and series both good – The Witch – and average – M. Night Shayamalan’s Split and Glass). When the two performers are on screen together – which is pretty much throughout the first half – what they do looks effortless, though Wright has choreographed every movement to perfection.
“I love that Edgar directs in beats because I have a background as a ballet dancer,” Taylor-Joy has said. “I naturally see scenes in beats. When I’m going through it in my head, I’m almost dancing a bit. And Edgar does the same thing with directing. Every one of my projects has presented me with a different kind of challenge or a different way of getting into character and being able to be directed lyrically was a real pleasure for me. It melded both of my loves of dance and acting.”
The film isn’t perfect. There’s a suggestion that Eloise may be sliding into mental illness, which destroyed her mother, and it flattens the story. And the final reveal at the end – which is telegraphed miles before it occurs – is too contemporary a conceit to lay atop the phantasmagoria that we’ve just witnessed. Yet Wright gives Diana Rigg a fitting, final performance (she’s as flinty and funny here as she was plotting against King Joffrey on Game of Thrones) and lets Terence Stamp do another iteration of his louche underground lowlife haunted by a bitter nostalgia for the good old days.
Edgar Wright is a masterful technician that wrings every ounce of entertainment from his films – whether the Simon Pegg-Nick Frost trilogy of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End or the smooth ride of his jacked-up Baby Driver. His best films, including this one, have their own internal logic that keeps them moving and vibrant and beating with a big Pop Art sheen. What he lacks, so far at least, is an emotional undertow. His movies are entertainments, but when they’re over, they vanish. You recall details, not feelings, yet his confections are such treasures it makes little difference.