Last night in Soho made no attempt at longevity
During a question-and-answer session after his 2013 film the end of the world, Edgar wright described how he would put upside down jokes to preserve the longevity of his films. If the gag setups are at the end of a movie, as opposed to the beginning, he thinks fans will only catch all references by watching multiple times. It’s a smart idea that helped secure his status as a beloved genre filmmaker. Last night in Soho, his latest film, does not attempt such longevity. The narrative is straightforward and the psychedelic imagery loses its cumulative effect through a heavy midsection. Dragging a story with fragile characters and a more fragile message, his riff on the pulp thrillers Giallo of the sixties and seventies does not have the bad taste that made them so famous.
Wright wastes no time making us nostalgic for the swinging London of the Sixties. On retro pop music, Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) dances around her bedroom and dreams of becoming a fashion designer. As Owen Wilsonthe character in Midnight in Paris, she’s a modern character who looks back with rose-colored glasses – her designs are inspired by the mod look that was so popular back then that she adores.
Ellie is about to wake up abruptly when she leaves her country house for a fashion school in London. It’s more miserable than she imagined, and her mean roommate is hardly welcoming. After a disastrous first night, Ellie finds a spare bedroom belonging to Mrs. Collins (Diana rigg). Although she has doe eyes and is innocent, Ellie at least has the means to admit a bad situation. This cocktail of assertiveness and vulnerability makes it easy to worry about her.
Strange things don’t start to happen until after Ellie goes to bed in her new apartment. She has a vivid dream where she finds herself transported to the London of the 60s, where she occupies the body of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), an aspiring singer. Wright’s special effects are subtle and evocative: he uses mirrors in London nightclubs to put Ellie in Sandie’s body, and vice versa. Dreams can be like this, a mixture of observation and participation, although they are rarely so intense. Ellie becomes addicted. She goes to bed every night just to see what happens next. After making a good first impression on alleged talent scout Jack (Matt smith), Sandie thinks she has a regular singing gig. His fantasy quickly turns into a nightmare – Jack is a pimp, not a promoter – and all of these gruesome images infect Ellie’s waking life. She is afraid of losing her mind.
Wright and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns aren’t shy about what happens to Sandie and Ellie. They portray the modern university as a nihilistic popularity contest – only the good John (Michael Ajao) gives Ellie a break, as Sandie’s descent into the underworld of London approaches Requiem for a dream territory. After countless lazy heroes, this should be a welcome change of pace for Wright, who has never had a female protagonist, let alone two. Unfortunately, he doesn’t care. Wright lets go of Ellie’s assertiveness when she needs it most. Vivid hallucinations would be disturbing to anyone, let alone those involving faceless men who want nothing more than to fiddle with her, but their effect begins to wear off. Last night in SohoThe extended middle, where Ellie desperately clings to her sanity, includes two too many riffs of the same psychological horror. Wright tries to mix it up by describing brutal murders – the blood is the same candy-colored hue as Suspiria – though the sluggish approach to the killer’s identity means he eventually lands without much urgency.
For a while, the combined performances of McKenzie and Taylor-Joy lead to some intriguing and complementary ideas. Ellie is relatively smiley, a “brave” archetype whom others take pity on and prey on their pure instincts. Sandie is more confident in appearance, the opposite of female stereotypes, with alluring eyes that ultimately invite the “wrong kind” of attention. Wright deepens their connection through clever editing and costume choices – after a few nights with Sandie, Ellie gets Sandie’s platinum blonde – though their differences don’t quite come true from the film’s conclusion. Wright finds more credibility in veteran performers: aside from the aforementioned Rigg, which has all the best lines, Terence stamp plays an aging barfly clearly hiding something. There are a few surprises as we learn the true nature of these elders, although astute viewers will find out just because there are few important characters.
Last night in Soho falls into a trap that Wright largely avoided. He confuses a longer duration with serious aspirations, when there could be a 90-minute version of this film that would be more mercilessly entertaining (i.e. bloodier and more frightening), without sacrificing his attempt. depth. The film succeeds in taking on the archetype of the innocent young woman to criticize the sexism of the 60s and today. For the women Ellie and Sandie represent, little has changed, a fact that the tedious weaving of periods of time – which is becoming more and more tedious – makes abundantly clear. By the time Ellie takes full account of the past, in an exhilarating climax that mixes a bit of gore and psychological dread, she’s eroded our patience enough that her hard-earned wisdom hasn’t come as a relief. Repetition is only smart when we see it in a new light, and a filmmaker who mixes genres like Wright used to understand.
Last Night in Soho opens in theaters across the region on October 29.