Inventive direction can’t overcome weak writing
Last Night in Soho
November 3, 2021
Following up his music documentary The Sparks Brothers from earlier this year, director Edgar Wright continues to expand past his comedy roots with Last Night in Soho, a shoddy but stylish thriller that taps into the filmmaker’s affinity for pop cultural touchstones.
Titled after the song by English beat band Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, the film dives into the Swinging Sixties scene of south London through the lens of our current obsession with nonstop nostalgia and retrograde romanticism. Opening with its lead Thomasin McKenzie aping Audrey Hepburn and dancing around in an ornate dress like something Emma Stone would have worn in Cruella, it’s not until about ten minutes in, when her character is seen with Beats headphones, that we realize it takes place in the present day. As we soon find out, getting lost in the past has its price.
McKenzie plays Ellie Turner, an orphaned fashion designer who moves from the English countryside to the big city after she’s accepted into the London College of Fashion. Things don’t get off to a great start with her haughty roommate Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen), leading Ellie to move off campus to an aged apartment run by the strict landlady Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg, in her last performance).
On her first night there, she has an evocative dream which sends her back to mid-60s London, where she manifests as an aspiring singer named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). Night after night, she is magically transported back to that time but as the dreams continue, she grows increasingly suspicious of Sandie’s manager Jack (Matt Smith). Back in the present day, the images from her vivid reveries pop up unexpectedly with troubling frequency.
The Film’s Halves Just Don’t Jive
Centered around an old soul longing to return to a seemingly better time, the first (and better) half of Last Night in Soho resembles the wistful Woody Allen fantasy Midnight In Paris, swapping protagonists from a stubborn screenwriter to an aspiring fashionista.
The much messier second half plays like Mulholland Drive if it were directed by Roman Polanski, though it doesn’t live up to the potential of that amalgamation. What connects the two halves is a curiosity about history as it’s written vs. history as it was lived, peeling back the glossy glamour of a vaunted era to reveal a less wholesome underbelly. It’s a worthy theme, one that directors like David Lynch have explored previously with outstanding results, but Wright missteps in how he attempts to personify these “ghosts” of the past.
Building off a story he fleshed out with screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, Wright asks us to consider the connection that Ellie has with Sandie, but the answer is disappointing and more than a bit puzzling. As more and more specters from Ellie’s dreams-turned-nightmares pop up, the screenplay spins its wheels with redundant story beats and obvious red herrings before inevitably pulling the curtain back.
It also wastes the talents of newcomer Michael Ajao, an afterthought as a potential love interest for Ellie who seemingly has no life outside of being at her beck and call. In fact, the male characters are so poorly written in this film, it makes me wonder if Wright did so intentionally to help men understand how women may have felt with a lack of meaningful representation on-screen in decades past.
Soho’s Cinematography Shines
What the film lacks in clear-eyed storytelling, it more than makes up for with overwhelming style and alluring presentation. Shot by frequent Park Chan-wook collaborator Chung Chung-hoon, the sumptuous cinematography pushes past the familiar iconography and brings this lively era to life once again. Wright has always been a music-driven filmmaker, and he brings his eclectic taste to bear with a terrific collection of well-known oldies and overlooked gems.
Tight editing, another hallmark of Wright’s films, contributes to the dreamlike quality of the throwback scenes, especially during a dance sequence that uses Texas Switches to alternate between McKenzie and Taylor-Joy.
Wright is an inspired and inventive filmmaker, but he’ll need a stronger script than the one for Last Night in Soho to get things right in the future.
New Movies Coming This Weekend
Playing only in theaters is Eternals, the newest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe starring Gemma Chan and Kumail Nanjiani about the titular immortal alien race as they reunite to protect humanity from their evil counterparts.
Streaming on Netflix is The Harder They Fall, a Western starring Jonathan Majors and Idris Elba about a notorious cowboy who reassembles his former gang to seek revenge against the man who murdered his parents.
Premiering on Apple TV+ is Finch, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama starring Tom Hanks and Caleb Landry Jones which follows the last man on Earth as he goes on a journey across the country with his personal android and his dog in company.