Many of us will remember where we were in 2017 when Edgar Wright blew the minds of many a cinephile to the stratosphere with his MTV-paced crime caper Baby Driver. Regardless of whether we partook in that zippy kool-aid on the big screen, its very presence encapsulated how brave and innocent many of us were at that time. It was nice, it was evolutionary. Fast forward to the present time, and we may be just starting to regain our footing, to once more be brave, adventurous, and look a little menacing throughout. Like a signal in the sky, Wright is there to answer the call, luring us back to a realm, not unlike our youthful innocent wrapped in our most fraught dreams. Last Night in Soho takes that idea at least two steps further, and then some. Just when we assume where his mind will wander, never could we imagine going this deep into a psychosis.
The lead subject is Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), a young student finally ready to spread her wings at a prestigious London fashion school. Living a dream her late mother had to leave behind, she strides confidently in those prior footsteps. At least, until sleep gets in the way in that student housing. Taking a chance, young Eloise rents out a room in a cozy flat owned by the charming Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg). And it starts out fine at first, with the young student finding her people, her friends, and a confidant in classmate John (Michael Aejo). But then, place her in bed, and it’s a whole different story.
Already somewhat vulnerable by seeing premonitions of her late mother either in dreams or in a conscious state by way of mirrors, Eloise’s new surroundings lure her into a state of flashbacks to a London bygone. One moment, it’s the present day. The other, it’s the 1960s. Everything is glittered in neon, dripping in candy-wrapped decadence like the finest dark chocolate. Goldfinger is the top box office draw, and Cilla Black is a cabaret star in the making. As Eloise wanders, she discovers an affinity with Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young singer just on the cusp of her own newfound fame. However, the more both Ellie and Sandie walk in step, the curious one becomes of the other, leaning deeper into a potential murder mystery, on either side of the weapon at play.
Wright, with co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917), see no small effort in a welcome, noble crusade for bending the genre they’re dabbling in, adhering to its rules while also touching them up. Arriving on a weekend where suspense, thriller, and horror fans will be most captive in front of screens, a genuine potpourri is offered to treat all the senses, and maybe rattle the nerves with its burgeoning tension. There may not be an overwhelmingly traditional slasher story involved, save for the final act. Nor are there significant jump scares to be found. Instead, it’s an organic, character-driven slow burn hinging on the wounds of deep trauma. The pain is only further stigmatized as Ellie explores that past London, without it being considered time travel.
Not so much Back to the Future, as it is Alice Through the Looking Glass, with the fleeting period familiarity of Cruella, the misogynistic tendencies of Promising Young Woman and the kaleidoscopic grief palette of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Direct and indirect influences notwithstanding, it’s a brilliant work of originality belonging near-perfectly in its parallel timelines, shot with cohesiveness by the rather underappreciated Chung-hoon Chung (Zombieland: Double Tap). Knowing how much time is spent there, the conjoined world of Ellie’s subconscious headspace expectedly wins out on the visual strengths. It does offer a heavy workout between Marcus Rowland’s (Rocketman) overall design template and Odile Dicks-Mireaux’s (Chernobyl) wardrobe primer, the pair working together to pump in that glossy, deep red sheen in a consistent pattern.
All these amiable elements don’t appear to click together until well after Ellie and Sandie’s character traits have been established, however. If anything were to have been done differently, perhaps the clerical point might’ve been crossed sooner with added sharpness. As it stands, the first half of Soho covers the necessary expository benchmarks, building the pieces to achieve the resolution Wright is building to. Both our leads stride in a similar coming-of-age path echoing that of Ellie’s mother. Beyond that, their differences outweigh their alikeness, with Ellie being more of the work-loyal bookworm as opposed to Sandie’s starlet stance, as her manager Jack (Matt Smith) lures into a web of victimization, fueled by his tactics and those of fellow shrewd businessmen.
For Miss Taylor-Joy, Sandie represents a showcase of dual vulnerability and sanguine overconfidence in attaining a life’s goal. She doesn’t lose that bit at any point, particularly on stage in covering Petula Clark’s “Downtown”, one of many lyrical accents in Wright’s soundtrack decisions. But if anyone were to have stolen the show for me that crown goes to Miss McKenzie. Having captured my heart and cut through the festival clutter a while back through smaller roles in Leave No Trace and Jojo Rabbit, taking the lead as Eloise counts toward her finally coming out as a surefire leading lady. If her focused fury doesn’t gather audiences’ attention, it’d be difficult to fathom what else could. That much could be said equally for aside Terence Stamp’s authoritative silver-haired bar patron, a satisfactory cameo from Hogwarts alums James and Oliver Phelps, or the bittersweet passages in a farewell performance by Miss Rigg (herself a staple of that 1960s London innocence),
And Wright, aware that many of his directorial choices tend to polarize as much as entertain, is still as much of an attention grabber as ever. Not always for the most promising of reasons, but normally for the better of keeping a given genre formula bouncy and flexible. With his expert mind and hands pulling the strings, you’re left to ponder and ponder just where Last Night in Soho will scurry next. Even as the pieces fell into place, I continued to question each step before it could play out effectively. And by that virtue alone, I wound up spellbound by its charming deception, leaving no guesses off the table until the credits rolled.
While it may not be the Edgar we know for taking a supreme risk and letting his style take the lead, lacking the cache noticeable on Baby or his experimental documentary The Sparks Brothers, this Edgar is still betting big on broadening his base of experience. And the results make themselves both seen and heard on that theater screen, embracing days gone by before they fade away. And for as long as this last night feels, the memory could be worth holding onto. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
Last Night in Soho arrives in theaters October 29; rated R for bloody violence, sexual content, language, brief drug material, and brief graphic nudity; 116 minutes.