Runtime: 116 minutes
Director: Edgar Wright
Writers: Edgar Wright & Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Stars: Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, Terence Stamp, Michael Ajao, Diana Rigg
By Calum Cooper
A prominent song in Edgar Wright’s “Last Night in Soho” (2021) is Petula Clark’s “Downtown” from 1964. The song suggests that if one is lonely or sad then a trip into the city – with its flashy lights and social vibrancy – will elevate all spirits. It’s a delightful song with upbeat vibes. Yet when you look at the underbelly of the city, away from the bright colours and rushes of everyday life, you find something drenched in horror – often filled with avarice, rage, and dreams that will never be fulfilled.
“Last Night in Soho”, Wright’s first crack at the horror genre, is plagued by such darkness. Inspired by such films as “Don’t Look Now” (1973), this has many of Wright’s key traits, be it a love of music, solid comedy, and subtle character work. But at its core, it’s a gripping look at how the past shapes us into the people we are. A lot of the marketing emphasised the nostalgia of the past, but also of the terror lurking underneath. In “Last Night in Soho” the sins of the past bleed into the chaos of the present to deliver something visually arresting and chillingly atmospheric.
Eloise Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) is a young woman who moves from Cornwall to study in London. Her dream of being a fashion designer is what she wants more than anything, but her poor self-confidence, and fixation on a tragic past, keep her from engaging socially. London was once a beacon of hope for her, but now that she’s here, the bustling urban sprawl and numerous rambunctious locals has her doubting herself. She goes to stay in a Room & Board in Soho, hoping some solitude will ease her nerves.
“In “Last Night in Soho” the sins of the past bleed into the chaos of the present to deliver something visually arresting and chillingly atmospheric.”
But this is where she begins to have dreams of the Swinging Sixties. Each night she appears to be transported to 1966, into the body of an aspiring club singer named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). At first the glitz and glamour of this new, simpler time seems welcoming, even going as far as to inspire Eloise’s present day work. But with each dream, the aforementioned underbelly of Soho’s night life begins to crawl its way out, resulting in deadly consequences for the past and present alike.
Dreams and reality are both conflicting and eerily compatible in “Last Night in Soho”. This is a film that deals with inviting prospects, be it the foregone events of the past, or our dreams, both figural and literal. Yet it cautions us on what happens if we relish too much in them. The streets of London have been through centuries of history, meaning they have seen as much suffering and darkness as they have hopes and wonder. Reality is often cruel and unbearable – a lesson Eloise has known for some time – but substituting it for indulgent fantasy can result in the birth of something more terrifying.
Wright’s team does a lot to capture that absorbing effect escapism has on Eloise, and by extension the audience. Evocative bursts of neon colours permeate the film, lighting up the night and drawing us in. The use of red is especially good, doubling as both attractive when framed as part of Soho’s nightlife – namely of Sandie’s club – and horrifying when the blood inevitably starts running. Chung-hoon Chung, who has served as cinematographer to many of Park Chan-Wook’s films, captures the detail of the London streets and club life with vivid vivaciousness; a style that quickly chills the spine as certain truths come out, and Eloise starts to find herself mentally lost in the mysteries of Sandie’s life, eventually intertwining with her own anxiety-laden present. One particular editing choice recalls Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” (1976), an apt choice seeing as that film also involves the terrors of the mind.
Further accompanying this is a dazzling soundtrack. Wright is no stranger to cracking music choices, and “Last Night in Soho” takes this to the nth degree. Eloise is a big vinyl collector, and already enjoyed 60s music before her strange transportation. Her recurring dreams only deepen her enthusiasm for this time period, and the music reflects this. Alongside the aforementioned Petula Clark, you have tracks from many recognisable 60s bands, including The Kinks, The Crystals, and of course a reference to the Paul Ryan song “Eloise”. They all capture the time period in exuberant detail. However, like “Downtown”, they also serve the film’s more ominous tone when you consider how the lyrics contrast with the content of the story.
Included in said content is some surprising thematic material that I can’t say I was expecting. No spoilers of course, but there’s a lot of anti-patriarchal sentiment in “Last Night in Soho”, and an especially furious attitude towards toxic male culture in regards to how little has changed over the course of many decades. There’s a lot of crass dialogue when it comes to the men of this film, with Wright revealing that some of these lines have actually been said to him and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns of “1917” (2019). The presence of this culture informs the horror of the story quite grotesquely. By showcasing how much this culture has persisted throughout the years, the film exemplifies additional themes of pressure and expectation in regards to aspirations and why you strive to achieve them, or perhaps what happens when your dreams become unobtainable.
It’s a lot for the film to juggle, even without the psychedelic, seemingly supernatural qualities to its narrative presentation. Yet anchoring all this fascinating material are tremendous performances from across the cast. Standouts include Matt Smith, who imbues the dizzy charisma that so many cherished in his “Doctor Who” (1963-) days with an underlying sinisterness. You also have the late Diana Rigg in her final role, and one that is more than worthy of her sharp mastery.
“Part morbid love letter to London and the 60s, part psychological thriller on the burdens of life, desire, and toxic culture, it’s the most unique of Wright’s films thus far, even if it does retain his sense of humour and musical style.”
Yet the duo of Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy steal every scene they are in, both together and individually. Perfect casting aside, these are two of the most gifted actors of their generation working today. Just one look at their body of work from “Leave No Trace” (2018) to “The Queen’s Gambit” (2020) and beyond reveals this. The way both women embody their roles with so much giddiness, awe and naivety in their initial appearances is so captivating, and to watch all of that excitement slowly crumble into despair, fury, and panic as the film reveals its cards is jaw-dropping. McKenzie and Taylor-Joy are nothing short of spellbinding.
There is one aspect to “Last Night in Soho” that notably falls short. It concerns the nature of Eloise’s dreams in the film. Without going into too much detail, it’s strongly implied to be a sixth sense power of sorts, with possible connections to mental health as well given Eloise’s backstory. I could believe it given the seemingly spiritual territory the film enters towards its latter half. Sadly it wasn’t always clear, especially as the lines between past and present become further blurred. It doesn’t need to be in spectacular detail for the film to work, but it may leave audiences having to do double takes. It’s an unfortunately messy aspect in an otherwise confidently realised feature.
“Last Night in Soho” captures the mind, ensnares the eyes, and clutches its disturbing setups with an icy grip. It’s stylish, haunting, and features staggering performances that convey timely themes within its story. Part morbid love letter to London and the 60s, part psychological thriller on the burdens of life, desire, and toxic culture, it’s the most unique of Wright’s films thus far, even if it does retain his sense of humour and musical style. I hope this marks the start of Wright exploring genres outside of his comedic roots. If this is the case, then “Last Night in Soho” is an eerie and disturbingly enchanted beginning.