Edgar Wright wears his passions on his sleeves — his films are a treasure trove of references and homages reflecting his unabashed love for film, music and life. That boundless, infectious passion coupled with a quick-twitch stylish flair is what makes it all work.
Thankfully, Wright continues to make HIS movies, exploring his unabashed passions, but whereas in his early work I felt included and part of the fun, now… I feel left out. Like Baby Driver, Last Night in Soho ultimately loses itself chasing the “cool,” in its own style.
Which is why I wanted to escape Soho for most of its runtime, and not just because I needed to pee.
Last Night in Soho tries to be everything — a ghost story, an exploration of mental health, an easy indictment of gross men, a revenge story, an artists’ coming-of-age, a love story, a music video… and I’m not sure it succeeds at any of them.
I am familiar with this desire as every single one of my projects, as with every single one of my relationships, feature me trying to do too much, me trying to be more than one thing.
Because of the overstuffed ingredients, I at least didn’t know where the movie was going, but I still wasn’t surprised by anything. There were a lot of twists, but instead of tying us into a lovely dramatic knot, it only seemed to unravel the more it was pulled. Terence Stamp’s bewildering character is a physical manifestation of this problem.
At its best, Last Night in Soho is a haunting. The haunting lingering behind dreams and ambition, the haunted mythos of showbiz made abundantly clear when Anya Taylor-Joy auditions for fame by singing Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” “Things will be great when you’re Downtown,” is a bullshit idea, but an intoxicating one.
This film comes at a time when those privileged enough to be able to are fleeing the cities, returning to the country. Last Night in Soho is in part about that fading allure of the big city, the fading allure of those big dreams and their harsh, stabbing realities. These are the reflections we see in the mirror, the puddles, every reflective surface imaginable in Soho that Wright becomes a bit too fond of showcasing. We remain haunted by these visions of the past and will continue to be until we exorcise them.
I’m here for that story. Yet despite its neon colors and thick shadows, this is a black and white exploration that feels muddied whenever it tries to stretch beyond simple moralities.
The true horror in Soho isn’t in the supernatural, the high-concept that goes up in flames in the third act. The true horror is in Act I — the not belonging, the not fitting in, the “weird” girl from Cornwall, Ellie Turner (Thomasin McKenzie), with no friends, no family, no support system in big bad London. (Despite a litany of warning signs, her doting grandmother is never more than a plot device/phone call away, unable/unwilling to help Ellie.)
Clearly, Ellie (and Wright) have a thing for the 1960s — when music and fashion were at their best, when London was the center of the universe! Of course, the 60s were also one of the most tumultuous and violent times in our world’s history, particularly for the disenfranchised. It’s obvious Wright wants to explore the reality of not just those fantastical big city dreams but of the 1960s playground where those dreams came to roost. Wright recognizes the inherent (white) privilege that a nostalgic, tunnel-vision look at the 60s betrays.
And there are certainly ingredients to go down that particular alley in the form of John (Michael Ajao), Ellie’s fashion school classmate/love interest/resident POC. While everyone else at school has watched Mean Girls and missed the joke, John is nice. Indeed, John is that classic thankless, way-too-nice, way-too-convenient, way-too-smitten with Ellie counterpart. He almost gets killed on multiple occasions and all he did to Ellie was steal her ice-cold can of product placement. At best, John is a character created to wrest Ellie out of tough corners. At worst, John and Ellie read like an abusive relationship that isn’t treated like one.
There are a lot of intriguing threads to play with, a lot of things that almost work and I suspect my dreams of what this movie could be infected the reality of what I actually discovered.
But the movie nearly works anyway because of Thomasin McKenzie’s fragile, quavering performance. She somehow carries us through all the noise, even whilst morphing into Gossip Girl Season 4 Jenny Humphrey.
Ellie’s mirror self meanwhile, Taylor-Joy’s Sandie, gets a lot less to do. She is a prop and while that’s entirely by design, it feels like a wasted opportunity. At a certain point, I just wanted the film to slow down, step back and let Anya and Thomasin play. Instead, it was all quick cuts, party music, pretty dancing and vaguely threatening epithets yelled by Matt Smith. Whenever a moment, a scene gets a chance to breathe, Ellie’s often watching Sandie perform parlor tricks for men, for us. One woman’s a voyeur, the other’s an object, neither able to fully transcend those roles even in their own movie.