Just as in his earlier film, Baby Driver
, co-writer and director Edgar Wright shows an incredible ability to set a scene to music in Last Night in Soho
. So much so, I can't help but wonder why Hollywood hasn't put him on the top of their list to adapt a musical. Music is so essential and plays such a large role in this film that it almost becomes a character in the storyline, sets the mood, and creates an atmosphere that few filmmakers can achieve with just select soundtrack choices.
The film is ultimately about nostalgia, as its heroine is a modern woman named Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) who is addicted to the music and pop culture of the London scene of the 1960s. Ellie lives with her grandmother (Rita Tushingham), whom she inherited her love of the era from, and seems to be a bright and confident young woman with a future in fashion design. She's headed off for London, and seems ready to conquer the world. These opening moments tell us all we need to know about Ellie, her hopes and dreams, as well as her secrets, as she also holds a sixth sense, which we learn when the image of her dead mother appears in her mirror behind her. It's something she's lived with for most of her life, is certain she has it under control, and knows that the next stage in her young life will help her move beyond any past pains she's experienced.
Of course, when she gets to London, it is anything but like she dreamed of it being, and nothing like how the movies of her favorite era (or the stories her grandmother told her of when she visited there) displayed it. She gets stuck with some shallow and catty girls at her new college, and can't quite get into the party scene that everyone else is enjoying. She decides to look for her own place, and finds a small apartment in Soho, complete with a grumpy old lady landlord named Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg, in her final performance). It's after she's settled into her new home that the dreams begin, as every time she falls asleep, she dreams about a blonde-haired woman named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), who comes to 1965 London with her own desires to be a famous singer. In her dreams, Ellie follows Sandie as the woman is swept up by the desires and charms of a man named Jack (Mark Smith), who promises to help guide her career.
At first, Ellie is transfixed and fascinated by these dreams, and maybe she envies the Sandie in her visions, as the woman appears to be everything that the timid modern girl is not. This leads to Ellie getting her hair done in the same style as Sandie in her dreams, as well as emulating her style and swagger, which makes her stand out more at school. However, it quickly becomes apparent that something sinister is afoot when these dreams start invading Ellie's everyday life, even when she is awake. Is she really dreaming? Are these a warning of some kind? As the visions become much darker and corrupt, and Ellie finds herself haunted by presumably supernatural forces, Wright and co-writer Kristy Wilson-Cairns start to rely on more conventional jump scares, and a third act that doesn't quite stick the landing.
Last Night in Soho
is quite engaging for a paranormal thriller throughout, but it's never quite as groundbreaking for the genre that the film's first half hints at. The truth is, we never learn that much about Sandie as a character. The performance by Anya Taylor-Joy is captivating and hints at a lot of mystery (as does the screenplay), but it doesn't act on it in quite the way we hope it would. She starts out as kind of an enigma who fascinates us, much as she does Ellie, but as the layers of the plot are stripped away and we start getting answers, it's a bit disappointing that there's not much more to her. It's also a bit disappointing when Wright starts relying on conventional scares of ghouls and dead people popping up and screaming at Ellie, when the movie seemed to be leading up to so much more.
I feel I should emphasize that this is still a strong movie, despite its weaknesses. The movie has an unmistakable flare and emotional pull as we are pulled back and forth between reality and a vision of the 60s that seems partly inspired by nostalgia, and partly a dark nightmare as that initial glitz and glamour are stripped away to reveal darker undercurrents and revelations. There are also some great visuals here, such as how a lot of times, we will see Ellie reflected in mirrors when Sandie is in front of them, or a dance scene between Sandie and Mark, where she is briefly replaced by Ellie time to time. Ellie is escaping into a fantasy through these visions, and probably winds up following them too deep, which leads to the dangers she encounters later on. The film does a wonderful job of mixing dreams, harsh reality, and a striking nightmare into one narrative, and it only disappoints during the Third Act, when it's revealed there's not as much here as we might have hoped.
The movie is so intoxicating for so long, it is a disappointment where it ends up, but I simply can't deny how much it does work when it's successful. Wright seems much more confident when he is setting up his mystery, his two worlds the story inhabits, and bringing his vision to life. When he has to rely on the much more standard blood-soaked shocks of the horror genre, his heart just doesn't seem as into it.