It’s easy to like Edgar Wright even before watching his films. The British director’s style is fast and hip, with visual references to impress the most sceptical cinephile, and all paced to a soundtrack edited perfectly to the screen. It’s like The Kinks made “Starstruck” just for him.
On paper, Wright’s films hit all the right buttons – original movies that wear its reference on their sleeve, with inventive visuals and curious premises. The best of them (Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs the World) scan the toxicity of grown adult men who still live in the idealised world of their youth, and the worst of them (Baby Driver) are shallow entertainment that reference works vastly more interesting. On paper, they’re honey for cinephiles, the perfect product from a generation that grew up with Spielberg and the geekification of pop culture, from comic books, videogames, MTV, Tarantino and television—made entirely aware of itself, in a meta-commentary that intentionally shines a spotlight on its audience.
But this is all on paper. I’m struggling to convey how much I liked Last Night in Soho: if at all.
The story follows Ellie (Thomasin Mckenzie), a young student accepted to the fashion designer course at the renowned London College of Fashion. Ellie romanticises London, especially the swinging sixties. We meet her dancing to her old records, pretending to be Audrey Hepburn, saying things like “if I could live anywhere at all it would be London, in the 60s”. She’s like a modern Emma Bovary, obsessed about an idea of something. Of course, London doesn’t turn out to be like Ellie hoped for – men don’t make her feel safe, she’s bullied by her roommate Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen), and the city isn’t at all like the dream place of her imagination. “London can be a lot”, someone tells her at some point.
In an effort for peace, Ellie moves to a room in Goodge Street owned by one Ms Collins (a tremendous Diana Rigg, to whom the film is dedicated, in her last role). At night, while listening to her records again, as the flashing red and blue neon of restaurant flashes on her face, Ellie is magically transported to 1965 as a young up-and-coming singer called Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). Ellie starts living vicariously through these dreams—rejecting plans every night, just so she can go home and return to the glamorous world of Sandie, who woos men with her purring rendition of Petula Clark’s “Downtown”, especially her manager Jack (Matt Smith).
The reality isn’t as black and white, though. Little by little, Sandie (and Ellie) see the rotten core of London’s society in the 60s, mainly how it affects young women. The realisation starts to break down Ellie, who suddenly starts seeing the ghosts of her dreams haunting her in real life, leading to a brutal moment where she witnesses a murder that may have happened decades earlier. It’s from this point that your enjoyment of Last Night in Soho is conditioned by how well you go along with Wright’s intentions.
It’s easy to see what Wright took from Dario Argento’s filmography – Ellie’s story mirrors Jessica Harper’s in Suspiria - but there’s more to take from Brian De Palma than anyone else. From the characterisation, the over-the-top artificialness of the visuals, I was getting Sisters and Dressed to Kill even before using De Palma’s signature split diopter shot (where sharp and out of focus shots are blended to keep to characters in focus). The ending is as chaotic and grandiose as Carrie; the protagonist an uncorrupted female archetype battling to keep her purity against the cruelty of the underworld. For all it’s worth, Wright knows how to use these visual clues with grand mastery. I’m just not sure if he understands its time and place.
While there is a lot to enjoy, it leaves the feeling Wright is biting off more than he can chew. When Luca Guadagnino remade Suspiria in 2018, he did it by reframing in an entirely new light that owed little but the premise to its original. Wright falls for the same trap he created for Ellie – he indulges so much in his nostalgia he fails to repurpose it to the contemporary. The third act, which is when Wright could’ve swept the rug from under all our feet, is when he doubles down on its shortcomings. He lets Rigg deservedly become the star of the show – herself a sex symbol from the era, she’s an inspired casting – but fails to add any depth to the concept.