Last Night in Soho (2021)
Written by Edgar Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Directed by Edgar Wright
Edgar Wright has consistently delivered good movies with broad appeal to audiences. From Shaun of the Dead to Baby Driver, I certainly respect Wright’s work while not my favorite films or my favorite filmmaker. Last Night in Soho is a different turn for Wright, his first female protagonist and an homage to giallo & Hitchcock. I wouldn’t say this is my favorite of his catalog of films, it’s certainly not bad, but I wasn’t drawn in that strongly by the story. This has been a common trend I’ve noticed with his last few movies, they are technically fantastic and visually inventive, but I feel cold to the characters.
Ellie Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) moves from the rural environs of England to London to attend fashion school. She’s obsessed with the Swinging Sixties period listening to the music of that time and recreating the clothing. After a rough time with her snobbish roommate, Ellie gets an apartment in the West End and begins having vivid dreams every night. She is living through the eyes of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a woman looking to become a singer in the 1960s. Sandie gets friendly with Jack (Matt Smith), who begins putting the woman in situations that violate her. Finally, the dreams start bleeding into Ellie’s waking life, and she realizes these are real people. Then she witnesses a bloody moment of violence from the past and knows she has to bring a killer to justice.
I think one of my problems with Wright’s work has always been the lack of subtlety. His stories are apparent metaphors for other things, but he has failed to develop as a writer to communicate those themes with any nuance. The arcs of every character are obvious, and you can almost imagine the plot beats once you are introduced to them. Wright is a clear student of mass media, made clear in his tv series Spaced. He loves the things of his childhood, and so many of his films directly reference those loves. This might be zombie movies in Shaun of the Dead or American action movies with Hot Fuzz. Last Night in Soho is Wright playing in the toy box of Alfred Hitchock and Dario Argento, and that’s what it feels like, a pale imitation of better movies.
The film marketed itself as a horror picture, but I found it much more in the realm of dark fantasy. There was nothing really that scary for an adult; I could see an adolescent being frightened at moments. The type of film Wright wants to make and the final product are contradictions in tone. Wright is a director who leans into bold, colorful visuals and his movies always have a strong vein of comedy throughout them. The story being told in Last Night in Soho is a very dark one about women’s sexual abuse and exploitation. Unfortunately, the execution of this script presents the story in way too light a tone for the subject matter. I believe Edgar Wright has great film taste as he evokes the colors of giallo and the psycho-sexual drama of Hitchcock, but he is certainly nowhere near as good as the directors behind these things.
What kept me invested in Last Night was not the story but the strong performances from the two female leads. Anya Taylor-Joy is an actress I have found fantastic in almost everything I’ve seen (I won’t hold her responsible for the New Mutants mess). She does a great job moving from wide-eyed to jaded as Sandie. I’ve always found Taylor-Joy to possess a weight to her performance that makes her seem like an older performer. I don’t think this is her best, partly due to the script, but she immaculately sells the role. Thomasin McKenzie is quickly moving up in my personal ranks of great young actresses. I loved her in Leave No Trace, and I think she can really capture characters with significant vulnerability who manage to hide it. She is excellent as Ellie; I just wish the script had given her a more complex story to engage with.
I’d love to see Wright apply his particular visual sensibilities to a story that doesn’t heavily rely on cultural references, but I just don’t see that happening with him. He’s too wrapped up in these things to ever make something divorced from them. I see that as a disappointment because there’s a lot of technical talent in his work. He’d make a hell of a cinematographer working for other directors. I’m sure I’ll keep seeing his movies as they are released over the coming years; I just can’t say I will be excited about them until I see more maturity in the writing side of the process.