After tackling various genres with comedic angles, such as zombie horror with Shaun of the Dead, alien sci-fi with The World’s End, the cop and small-town mystery film with Hot Fuzz, and the comic book movie with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Edgar Wright mostly leaves the laughs behind with Giallo-style psychological/supernatural thriller Last Night in Soho. Granted, the hugely enjoyable Baby Driver was certainly a drive into more serious fare for Wright, but it’s arguably here that the filmmaker really goes darker – in terms of themes, violence, and overall tone. That being said, Wright does still manage to include a few laughs here and there as the darkness unravels. So, how does it all fare? Well…
New Zealand star Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit, Leave No Trace) stars as Eloise “Ellie” Turner, an aspiring fashion designer living in a rural home with her grandmother. Early on, we learn that she has some kind of supernatural… gift (?)… something related to seeing those who have passed. The workings of her ability are never made clear. After being accepted to study at the London College of Fashion, Eloise heads to the big city, extremely shy, but keen to embrace a potentially exciting new chapter of her life. Alas, a snooty roommate and a party-heavy environment prove to be too much. She decides to leave the college residence and move to a small bedsit owned by a nice, albeit strict elderly lady, Alexandra (the late Diana Rigg).
It’s here that Eloise’s dreams begin. These night fantasies take her back to 1960s London, where she observes, and also envisions herself to be, aspiring successful singer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). With a confident attitude, Sandie goes about chasing her ambitions and captures the eye of a charming manager, Jack (Matt Smith). The two hit it off and embark on a flirty relationship, much to what appears to be the enjoyment of Eloise, who looks forward to revisiting this world and even gets a few design and style pointers from Sandie. Of course, things aren’t what they seem. Eloise is soon witnessing the troubling, escalating events in Sandie’s life, which may or may not be a fantasy in her mind. Suffice it to say, the dreams are soon all-out nightmares, placing Eloise on a very real mystery that could push her to breaking point.
On a basic level, One Night in Soho is a fun premise, providing Wright with a cinematic playground of period drama, psychological thriller, heady mystery, and even ghost story. On top of that, Wright clearly sees it as an opportunity to look at the gender politics of the time, through today’s lens. This social element doesn’t quite land the way it should, with Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns’ (1917) screenplay laying it on thick with ultra-simplistic messaging on a variety of gender-related points – from sex work, to misogyny, to sexual abuse – that get needlessly muddled once the reveal comes around. These elements are quite connected to plot, so I won’t dwell on this and simply say that Wright may have been better off focusing solely on the mystery – and not so much the social failings surrounding it.
The plot is disappointingly spersed. The trailer and the marketing have made it clear that, yes, things get dark and wild on the Sandie side of things, so it’s a little frustrating that it takes as long as it does for things to get moving on that end. Eloise’s persona and her experiences at college are a highly familiar package – she’s quiet and timid, the college girls are mean, and there’s an oh-so-nice guy that she should really give a chance. Her early journey is quite trope-heavy as she attempts to settle in and her demeanor is established, extending what feels like Eloise’s narrative setup far into the movie. For close to the first half, One Night in Soho feels as though there are two movies competing – and the more interesting one is taking too long to show up and make itself heard. Had Eloise’s world been a little more interesting, this would not have been such an issue.
Thankfully, Sandie’s sections are much more engaging. Taylor-Joy continues to be a magnetic screen presence and provides a sympathetic character with Sandie, while Smith puts in fine work as the malicious Jack. It’s also in these segments that Wright gets to have fun on the visual, technical side of things. Wright’s films are packed with enjoyable visual flourishes, whether they be nods to classic films, fun editing techniques, or music-driven interludes. One Night in Soho finds Wright, somewhat surprisingly, holding back on his more overtly expressive leanings – at least in comparison to the level in which he’s delivered before. But, there are still a number of standout moments and sequences that will bring a smile to Wright fans and those of cinema in general.
The use of mirrors is delightful, placing Sandie on one side and Eloise on the other with the occasional interplay. A particular dance sequence with all three leads is also memorable. And visually, it all benefits from having masterful cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon (Oldboy, Thirst, The Handmaiden) behind the lens. Wright’s signature love for soundtrack is also at play here; there’s a wealth of music, lovingly, perhaps over-indulgently on occasion, placed throughout.
With One Night in Soho, Wright has himself a concept that allows him to craft a mash-up of horror sub-genres, with affectionate nods to various cinematic influences. The result is scattered – a bumpy, occasionally enjoyable and surprising, ultimately familiar tale placed on an overly long runtime (just under two hours; a tighter 90-or-so minutes may have worked wonders). The leads and an attractive production design help carry us along, but Wright plays too loosely with the plot, setting up little turns that aren’t explored and appear to be included to simply throw audiences from the scent. Once the silly and unintentionally amusing final reveal comes along, whether or not you saw it coming, it’s a little hard to feel satisfied.
‘Last Night in Soho’ opened in US cinemas on October 29th and Australian cinemas on November 18th.