REVIEW: Last Night in Soho (Venice 2021)
Edgar Wright, acclaimed cult director of Baby Driver and Hot Fuzz fame, directs Last Night In Soho with a breezy smoothness, but this vibrant, pulpy horror is disappointingly toothless.
In contemporary Cornwall, naive and fresh faced 18 year old Eloise ‘Ellie’ Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) is standing in her room. Fashion strewn across the floor as she dances in front of the mirror, imagining her future as a famous designer. A letter arrives. She’s going to London fashion school! But that’s where her late, schizophrenic mum went and couldn’t hack it because “London is a big scary place”! Off she goes, bright faced with big dreams, the (literal?) spirit of her mum standing over her shoulder. Quickly realising her ‘country girl’ quirkiness doesn’t fit in with her peers in student accommodation, she finds herself finding the perfect flat in Soho with cold landlady Miss Collins (the late Dianna Rigg in her last, but brilliant, on screen performance). It’s dusty and dated but it reminds her of her favourite era, 60’s London and she falls in love with it.
Falling asleep in the glow of a neon french bistro, she finds herself transported through time in her sleep. Whilst dreaming, she inhabits the body of Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy), a confident blonde bombshell with high hopes for her life as a star in London. Realising her vivid dreams aren’t just dreams, they become a reality that Ellie would rather prefer. She takes inspiration from her fantastical, corporeal dreams to mimic Sandy in her modern day life, changing from her natural brunette to Sandy’s bouncy blonde curls. As the timelines blur, the ghosts of the past come haunting up through the creaky floorboards and Ellie sets out on a mission to find the person who murdered Sandy…
When you think of Edgar Wright and horror, you think of his previous foray into the genre Shaun of the Dead, which is more comedic in value than scary. Last Night In Soho wants to be horror. It wants to homage Dario Argento’s Suspiria, Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street along with countless others that Wright obviously views fondly, but it comes across as a little cheap (Or expensive! Depending on how much the CG to replicate some of these shots cost). CGI ghosts give bland jump scares, body horror that is all fake blood and so much tamer than it wants to be, and the build up to its climax is lethargic in its repetitiveness – Ghosts! Ghosts! More ghosts!
It’s still a very pretty film, when not having the characters on CGI stairs, and has some glorious panache to its shot selection which one would expect to be thrown onto the One Perfect Shot Twitter account. The smooth edit seen in the trailer of Ellie and Sandie switching places while dancing with Jack (A hammy Matt Smith, who has surprisingly little to do here) is an absolute highlight. It’s such a delightful scene, bookended with ideas of what’s to come. But it tries very hard with scenes like this that it just feels a little bit plastic and unnatural. It feels that by not signifying itself with Wright’s individual style, it loses a step. Wright styles himself with quick edits and visual character cues, but he wants this to brood. He wants this to thrill and scare, and it just doesn’t reach those emotional heights when Wright wants it to.
It does hit those heights during its opening forty minutes however. A dry eye is not to be found as Ellie tells her Grandmother (Rita Tushingham) that she’s “doing it for her, indicating her mother’s attempt to break into the fashion industry that contributed to her suicide. Ellie’s time finding her feet in scary London – a flat, a job, a friend – is full of whimsy coming-of-age charm and it is sweet, fun and full of moments of messaging about the intimidating actions of men, and indicates often that it will deal with ideas surrounding the ‘Me Too’ movement, becoming a call to arms. Ellie uncomfortably leaves a taxi early, moves away from a drunk student who is in her personal space, and provides this constant idea that the men that were involved in Sandy’s life are literal demons.
However, as Last Night in Soho goes deeper into thrill, the amusement wanes, the message becomes muddled, and especially in its third act, it feels as lifeless as the ghosts stalking Ellie. When the third act does start poking it’s way through, specifically when Sandy’s career takes her on an unexpected turn, the message of the film becomes a hodgepodge of rewrites and feels outdated for the current climate. Progressive ideologies don’t always have to be entertained within art, but it creates an uncomfortable feeling. It’s one that begs to be taken seriously throughout but Wright’s writing, along with ‘1917’ scribe Krysty Wilson-Cairns, lacks the gravitas and nuance required for these discussions. A message as important as ‘Me Too’ deserves not to be sidelined in favour of cheap thrills. It feels as though this murky messaging could have been solved easily with a single line of dialogue within its final act. Alas, the message remains dated.
Last Night In Soho entertains often, scares cheaply and undercuts its message, but remains a good, fun escape. A star turn by Thomsasin McKenzie helps make this muddled, confused film a diverting time if you turn your brain off a little.
Which, perhaps, we shouldn’t need to do.