A film review by Craig J. Koban November 9, 2021

LAST NIGHT IN SOHO jj
 

2021, R, 118mins.

Thomasin McKenzie as Eloise  /  Anya Taylor-Joy as Sandy  /  Matt Smith as Jack  /  Diana Rigg as Miss Collins

Directed by Edgar Wright  /  Written by Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns

Let it be stated that I've been a staunch admirer and supporter of Edgar Wright's films since the beginning of his career.  

His work hardly needs any introduction whatsoever, but everything from his landmark zombie apocalypse comedy in SHAUN OF THE DEAD through his comic book adaptation of SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD to, most recently, his crime caper thriller BABY DRIVER has shown him as a virtuoso cinematic stylist of incomparable gusto.  

I looked forward to seeing his latest endeavor in the psychological horror film LAST NIGHT IN SOHO, and the most overwhelming thought that crossed my mind while screening it was that this represents yet another stunningly realized technical showpiece for the British filmmaker that rivals anything on his past resume.  Regretably, though, this film also represents a proverbial style over substance conundrum that really sticks out.  LAST NIGHT IN SOHO is a gloriously realized visual odyssey through and through, but the whole film simply doesn't work or come off as well as it wants to as a terrifying genre exercise.  Yet, there's so much to bloody admire here: the performances, production design, art direction, and overall ambition of its premise.  Alas, Wright's film somehow just oddly falls apart in the end. 

But, boy oh boy, did he ever cast this film well.  Thomasin McKenzie (so brilliant in her career making turn in LEAVE NO TRACE and one of the best things in the problematic JOJO RABBIT) plays Ellie, a bright minded and highly idealistic art student that has become romantically absorbed in everything 1960s, from its clothing styles, music, and movies.  She has huge aspirations to make it as a top tier fashion designer in London (which seems so very far away from her rural home) and to be accepted into an extremely prestigious fashion design school.  Ellie lost her mother to suicide years back and now lives with her loving and nurturing grandmother, but from time to time Ellie still has visions of her mother throughout the day, who makes fleeting appearances in the film as a ghostly apparition that quietly watches on her daughter from beyond the grave.  Much to Ellie's elation and her grandmother's concern, she does get accepted into the aforementioned school, which leads to her quickly packing up and moving to London all on her own.  She can't wait to drink in everything the city has to offer her, whereas her grandmother is deeply concerned that she'll be easily overwhelmed by this transition journey. 

It doesn't start off too particularly rosy for Ellie.  Firstly, she's hit on by the creepy middle aged cab driver upon her first car ride through London, and later when she's introduced to her roommate in Jocasta (Synnove Karlsen) and her BFF squad she soon realizes that these young woman relish at any opportunity to bully her.  Understanding that she can't possibly live with Jocasta at all, Ellie decides to flee her dorm room and find a new place to call home, which leads to her finding room and board with a kindly, but tough talking and no nonsense elderly landlady, Ms. Collins (the late Diana Rigg, in her last movie role).  During her first night in her new pad Ellie makes a shocking discovery: Every night when she lays down to sleep she's miraculously transported to a mid-60s London (the very era that she worships!) and gets to vicariously experience this new world opened up to her via an attractive young singer, Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy), who hopes to make it big with some help from her new boyfriend in Jack (Matt Smith).  For the first few nights, Ellie is utterly absorbed with transporting to the swinging sixties and witnessing Sandy nab her dream job; the world seems ripe for her to grab a hold of and conquer. 

 

 

Mournfully, though, things take a decidedly darker detour and Ellie's once upbeat perception of Sandy and her world begins to crumble down.  Not only does Jack emerge as a lecherous fiend as her lover and manager, but Sandy soon realizes that she's being groomed to service the carnal pleasures of many different male patrons on a nightly basis.  As Sandy's horror show begins to unfold at night, Ellie's grasp on sanity and reality begins to slip during the day, especially when it seems that elements of her dream world of the past begin to traumatize and haunt her in the present.  Everyone around her, of course, thinks that Ellie is nuttier than a fruitcake, but she remains steadfast in her convictions that her bedroom is a mystical portal into the past and that maybe - just maybe - Sandy and Mike are not just make-believe personas at all.  With each passing and mentally taxing day, Ellie soon discovers how hopelessly alone she is and that no one will help her figure out the troubling mysteries of the past. 

The central premise contained within LAST NIGHT AT SOHO is a densely layered one riddled with complexities that certainly requires audience members to pay attention and not dose off, but it's nevertheless an endlessly fascinating one.  Wright is playing with the conventions of wish fulfillment fantasies here, more specifically the notion that all of them, once experienced by his plucky protagonist, are anything but cheerful and exciting.  In short, what if one's dream in life quickly becomes a living nightmare, and one that waking up from becomes harder and harder with each passing day?  I certainly understand why a director such as Wright would want to find any outlet to revisit his birth nation's past, and one of the sheer joys of watching LAST NIGHT AT SOHO (early on, at least) is the director unleashing his unique skill set in immersing viewers in a London of yesteryear.  On a level of meticulous technical craft, this film is an unqualified masterpiece and works as pure period specific eye candy.  The attention to detail in LAST NIGHT IN SOHO is laudable, to say the least, and upon Ellie's first pilgrimage to the decade of her fantasies the film definitely has an ethereal magic about it all; it's easy to become lost in this world within a world here. 

That, and Wright unleashes some truly extraordinary set pieces that shows Ellie's nocturnal treks to the past.  She doesn't just witness Sandy's story...she literally becomes Sandy (in reflections in mirrors she sees herself, but the rest of the world of 1960s London sees Sandy in a psuedo-QUANTUM LEAP effect).  There are some incredible in-camera effects (I'm assuming they're in camera) that features, for one instance, a tour de force dance montage in a hip and posh 60s nightclub as Jack dances the night away with Sandy, but as the one long take goes on we seem actresses McKenzie and Taylor-Joy effortlessly morph in and out of shots in a moment of marvelous movie trickery.  Without question, LAST NIGHT AT SOHO is peppered with moments of legitimate awe and wonder, and Wright has a field day in capturing the hypnotizing, dreamlike aura of a London that has a Svengali-like grip on Ellie's consciousness.  The film is also permeated with classic songs of the period in question as well, and in many respects makes for an interesting spiritual sequel to Wright's last film in BABY DRIVER, which also contained a central storyline that featured a robust marriage between movies and music.  

But, again, why doesn't LAST NIGHT IN SOHO just...work?  It has seemingly everything going for it, not the least of which being McKenzie, who is so pitch-perfectly cast and thoroughly on point here as her initially mesmerized big city greenhorn that later becomes tormented by the living terrors that possesses her soul.  Maybe it has something to do with LAST NIGHT IN SOHO throwing too many elements into its mixing bowl.  Sometimes, hodgepodge cinema either flows well or it doesn't.  In this film's case, it's a coming of age tale of a plucky and determined young woman and a nostalgic throwback picture to a bygone era and a time travel romance and a psychological horror freak show featuring ghastly demons (both metaphorical and literal) that manifest themselves to the hero and makers her life miserable.  Some of this works, but most of it seems clunky and uninspired in terms of symmetry from the usually poised and assured Wright.  LAST NIGHT IN SOHO is a film with lots of square shaped pegs that its director yearns to have fit multiple round holes.  Like all would-be promising PWP films (or ones containing a premise without payoff), LAST NIGHT IN SOHO begins so wonderfully and entices audiences into its transfixing multiple planes of existence, only to fall apart when trying to explain the whole hook, which leads to a final act and ending that's not nearly as satisfying as everything that built up towards it.

And another big problem here is that LAST NIGHT AT SOHO is rarely shocking...or unnerving...or scary in the slightest.  Wright serves up macabre sights and sounds, but they barely even hit the low rent jump scare register.  Furthermore, the multiple mysteries contained within the story (penned, by the way, by Wright and 1917 screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns) are fairly predictable when one starts to follow Roger Ebert's "Law of Economy of Characters" (a seemingly minor or unimportant character turns out to be much more crucial to the plot than they first appear) and the eleventh hour revelations thrown out at us late in the film is pretty uninspired.  Considering the darkness of the LAST NIGHT IN SOHO's trek to the past (which involves forced prostitution and the toxic male power brokers at the top of it all), this film seems thematically reticent, if not hopelessly inert at times. 

It pains me to say this, but LAST NIGHT IN SOHO is one of Wright's lesser efforts on his storied resume, especially coming off of the 47-year-old director's brilliant of SCOTT PILGRIM and BABY DRIVER (yes, the very good THE WORLD'S END is sandwiched between those two, but you get my drift).  His latest is a real qualitative pendulum: For everything that works sublimely there are an equal number of things that don't.  As a scintillating marvel of filmmaking prowess and showmanship, Wright is in top tier form here.  Plus, McKenzie's casting as Ellie, as mentioned, is one of the film's true coup de grace creative moves.  Even when everything begins to implode around her, the actress nevertheless gives it her all in a very challenging and tricky performance that could have achieved distracting levels of over-the-top camp with the wrong star.  There's too much admirable flair to casually ignore and discount in LAST NIGHT IN SOHO, but I didn't find the overall ride that Wright took me on here to be on the level of what he's unleashed before.  It's a pure demo reel for his talent, to be sure, but not a fully formed or realized movie.  Paradoxically, LAST NIGHT IN SOHO demands big screen consumption to appreciate what Wright has conjured up, but on the whole it's not worthy of a theatrical ticket price.  

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