Escaping the quiet, cosy country home of her grandmother, Eloise Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) finds herself in the glamorous west end of London where she hopes to thrive as a fashion designer. Coveting the glamour of 1960’s London, she is soon disappointed by the stark realities of modern student life. But in her dreams she finds herself transported back to the London she longed for, and inside the body of a beautiful young singer named Sandy (Anya Taylor Joy). But all is not as it seems as the true nature of England’s capital becomes shockingly apparent.
Nostalgia has always been an important aspect of Edgar Wright’s work. The deference shown to classic genre films has fuelled his work without ever feeling indebted to them, as with Tarantino’s work. In Last Night in Soho Wright has made a film about the dangers of golden age thinking. Eloise is ignoring her present and neglecting her future in favour of a literal nostalgia trip that is far more complex and dark than she realises. She feels empowered by her knowledge of a lost age of glamour, which also forms a bond to her mother. The romance of the 1960s is lovingly explored and then shockingly subverted in a sequence where the velvet curtain slides back revealing the sordid underbelly of London.
Wright wanted to make a movie set in West London as he felt it had been neglected as a location in recent British cinema. His vision of Soho and Fitzrovia benefit from his unique style but also feel authentic. Brusque, occasionally sinister but often not unfriendly encounters with Londoners rings true to this critic (who has lived in London his entire life). This is in contrast to the character of Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen) who has been written as subtly as Regina King. It’s broad but not without comedic merit. Thomasin McKenzie is a perfect Wright-style hero, encompassing the charm of Danny from Hot Fuzz and the wide-eyed naivety of Scott Pilgrim. Anya Taylor Joy is magnetic as the charismatic young singer, but also succeeds in being heart-breaking as her dream turns sour.
The horror elements of the film are most effective when stemming from the human characters. Matt Smith is a sharp and frightening presence who commands every scene he is in. Once the objects of terror become, admittedly well-designed, CGI monsters who noisily announce themselves on-screen, the tension does take a dip somewhat. However what the ghosts represent is the ever-present unwelcome designs of men on young females. 60s London was a machine that took in young women and produced bodies, and once the films final surprise is revealed it demonstrates that the true horror of London is that it might rob you of yourself.
All of which is achieved and realised with Wright’s signature technical bravura. Clever scene transitions, bold visual storytelling and Giallo inspired moments of gore make this a compellingly visual story. The colour palette is perhaps his most striking, and there are ingenious moments of cinematography that will linger in the mind long after the screening. Perhaps most entertaining are the dream sequences in which Eloise finds herself observing, and sometimes inhabiting, Sandy as she travels through the glamorous nightclubs of the early story. From behind reflective surfaces she observes with fascination, joy and eventually horror. It’s a perfect marriage of special effects, storytelling and performance.
Last Night in Soho sees Edgar Wright turn his hand at Horror, and though the film works more effectively as fantasy, he has delivered another startlingly original vision that is as interesting cinematically as it is engaging emotionally. By balancing his fondness for visual fireworks, memorable music and powerful performance he has delivered a true wonder and a film that surely only he could have made.