NOTE: Minor spoilers follow.
A glorious blend of horror movie, ghost story, and a nostalgic love letter to London in the ‘60s, Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho again finds the director mixing genres to tell a brutal yet imaginative story. His sharply written and evenly paced film centers on Eloise “Ellie” Turner, a dedicated follower of fashion from a small town in Cornwall decides who moves to London to pursue her dream of becoming a designer.
A shy wallflower, her quiet demeanor hides a secret: the ability to see spirits, especially her mother whom she still grieves for. Raised by her aunt, she is eager to begin a new life but unprepared for the realities of living in London. Upon arrival, she is a fish out of water, struggling to fit in at university. Stuck with a snobby roommate and partying classmates, she struggles to make friends.
Homesick and frustrated with dorm life, she rents a flat from Ms. Collins, a curmudgeonly landlord who likes her peace and quiet. Living independently, Ellie finally is able to experience London on her terms. Taking a job at a pub to help pay rent, she settles into a comfortable routine. Her tranquility is short-lived, as she discovers that her dreams allow her to enter the swinging Soho of the ‘60s.
Despite her dream state, everything she experiences appears real for Ellie, whose heightened sensitivities allow her to soak in the glitz and glamor of the time. She is immediately drawn to Sandie, a talented young woman who, like Eloise, has dreams of finding success in the Big Smoke (i.e. London).
Looking to make her big break as a nightclub singer, Sandie quickly finds herself navigating the misogyny and greed of London’s nightclub scene. Her hopes of success appear dashed until she meets the suave Jack, whose eye for talent and connections make him an ideal manager. Swept up by his charm, Sandie quickly gets an audition where her version of “Downtown” helps her get a booking.
With her career seemingly jumpstarted, Sandie quickly learns that fame comes at a cost. For the young singer, the Soho of her dreams has been shattered and replaced with a world filled with booze, betrayal, and sleazy deception.
Disturbed by Sandie’s struggles, Ellie can only watch as a bystander, unable to intervene. As her involvement in the past deepens, her dreams fracture into nightmares that tear away at her reality, causing upheaval with her schoolwork, job, and social life. Eventually, her dreamscape trips to ‘60s Soho gradually take their toll, leading to an emotional breakdown.
Despite the efforts of her friend John, and her aunt Peggy, Ellie begins to turn away from the real world. Unhinged and desperate to discover the truth about Sandie, her grip on the present ebbs into darkness as her journey climaxes to shocking and gruesome revelation.
Once again, Wright turns reality on its head. Like in Baby Driver, the monsters that inhabit the real world are actual people. Revisiting this dynamic, he cleverly contrasts the beasts roaming modern Soho with those of its seedier, swinging past.
To help make this connection work onscreen Wright enlisted a talented mix of fresh faces (including Thomasin McKenzie and Michael Ajao) alongside three of the era’s most iconic stars: Terence Stamp, Rita Tushingham, and Diana Rigg.
The “It Girl” of Britain’s new wave cinema of the 1960s, Tushingham is delightful. Playing it cool as Eloise’s aunt, she gives the film the calmness and simplicity it needs before it goes haywire.
Stepping in and out of the shadows, Stamp is a silver-haired stranger with a mysterious past. Suspicious of his glib tongue and creepy vibe, Ellie knows he is somehow connected to the events in her dreams. Linking the Soho cool of the ‘60s with its commercialized gentrification of today, Stamp’s chewing of scenery is gloriously fun.
Balancing vulnerability, innocence, and independence, McKenzie’s Eloise is a likable protagonist. While she does not carry the movie on her own, the New Zealand born actress holds her own with a talented cast of cinematic legends.
Matt Smith is an excellent villain as Jack, the mysterious raconteur who gives Sandie her first break. Connected and suave, Jack quickly worms his way into Sandie’s career, as she quickly falls pretty to his scheming.
In casting against type with Smith, Wright has again shown his proclivity for allowing his actors to develop fully developed characters that go against the grain. Here, Smith’s exceptional performance gives audiences a multilayered character with an urbane exterior that hides a calculating thug.
Last Night in Soho is really all about Dame Diane Rigg. Anchoring the film as Ms. Collins, she owns every minute of screentime in her final role. Abrupt and brutally honest, she nonetheless watches over Eloise as she tries to find herself in London. In a movie where every character is not what they seem, Rigg, like Smith plays against type with superb results.
Soaked in blood and sugar, Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho features Wright’s trademarks of creating interesting characters who live in shades of the grey in well-paced stories accompanied by a soundtrack that perfectly frames the whole thing.
Last Night in Soho also shows his progression as an auteur making films without being pinned down. As a result, Last Night in Soho works as both a bruising horror flick, and a sentimental coming-of-age love letter to Soho.