If you could go back in time, what time period would you go to? It’s a question that is often asked, and sure we all have our answers for various reasons. Me? I’m just like Last Night in Soho‘s main characters Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), as I too am drawn in by the 1960s — the music, the fashion and glitz and glamour sheen that overlays the decade is intoxicating. But I know that everything isn’t what it seems to be. We are enamored with the facade created by pop culture — there is a dark underbelly to every time period. And that’s the world we get lost in writer/director Edgar Wright’s latest film, Last Night in Soho.
Co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917), Last Night in Soho is the story of Eloise, a young woman from the countryside who is venturing off to the big city of London for fashion school. Eloise is enamored with the 1960s and often gets lost in her own little world, imagining the times and immersing herself in the music of Dusty Springfield and The Kinks, just to name a few. But there is more to the somewhat introverted Eloise than meets the eye — she can mysteriously see the dead (a la The Sixth Sense). It’s this gift — or curse — that takes her on a journey through time where she meets an up-and-coming starlet Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), but Eloise must figure out the mystery of the past to set herself and Sandie free.
At the heart of this film is a young woman dealing with trying to fit in, living up to family expectations, making a go at it on her own, and dealing with the lasting effects of family mental health issues and grief. Along the way, she encounters snotty and annoying (and downright awful, if we’re being honest) roommates, a gentle soul who identifies with her outsiderness, a big scary city just waiting to devour her and the ghosts of the past. Wright plays on the familiar theme that was present in a lot of films from the 1960s where a somewhat naive young woman leaves home to try out the big, scary city where there is a “bad” man or dangerous around every corner just waiting to take advantage of you (whether that was London or NYC — take 1963’s Sunday in New York for example).
At first, Eloise is excited by the possibilities when her dreams transport her back to 1960s London and the life of Sandie until those dreams turn into a living nightmare when Sandie’s life and the road to stardom takes a dark turn. The road to riches (and fame) is often paved with people with bad intentions, and Sandie learns this first-hand when she gets caught up with “manager” Jack (Matt Smith), who forces her into a life that she didn’t ask for in hopes of making it big.
Best known for his comedic trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End), Last Night in Soho stays true to director Edgar Wright’s form in that it is a horror-thriller that is infused with comedic moments. Although not a horror film, Wright’s previous crime-thriller, Baby Driver, had the same elements and feel. Wright also brought along repeat collaborators (production designer Marcus Rowland, editor Paul Machliss and composer Steven Price) to keep on theme.
Rowland’s production design is spot on and really transports us to Soho in the 1960s and present day. Editor Paul Machliss does a fine job of bringing it all together seamlessly and cohesively which seemed like quite the task with so many different elements and genres at play. And as usual, composer Steven Price’s score really sets the mood, and as a fan of ’60s music, the soundtrack is tops. But we would be remiss if we didn’t give credit to cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (Old Boy, The Handmaiden) and brilliant aesthetic and camera work — it’s a beautiful, neon-filled psychedelic dreamscape.
But Last Night in Soho would not be what it is and come to life on the screen without the stellar performances of its leads — Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy. These two just embody their roles so effortlessly. McKenzie carries the weight of her assignment with ease, and her journey of unraveling until she finds her inner strength is something to behold. And Taylor-Joy’s tragic up-and-coming starlet thrust into a life she doesn’t want to live is mesmerizing — just like the neon-hues, we are blinded by her presence and her melodic “Downtown” rendition. Matt Smith ain’t so bad either. And you have to appreciate Wright’s nod to the time period by casting Diana Riggs (best known as Emma Peel in 1960s’ The Avengers) and ’60s icon (and former beau of the likes of Julie Christie and Brigitte Bardot) Terence Stamp.
But even with all of the things done well, something still missing about Last Night in Soho still misses the mark, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe it was the fact that this film was trying to be a lot of different things — murder mystery, comedy, romance film, revenge thriller, you name it (there were Get Out, The Sixth Sense, and Promising Young Womanvibes all throughout) — and it couldn’t quite figure out who it was. Like Eloise, it is unsure of what is happening. The film starts strong but comes the third act kind of loses itself just like Eloise does as her obsession with Sandie and her nightmares begin to take over.