Edgar Wright is a visually gifted director, of that there is no doubt. So it makes sense to be excited about his latest shift from comedy to ionic horror with Last Night in Soho. In many ways, Wright manages to deliver on the promise of an obsession with old British pop and 1960s London nightlife, creating set pieces that speak directly to the darker side of a scene dominated by flashy colors and pretty girls.
But beneath the thin veneer of plot twists and false social commentary lies a shockingly irrelevant film, a story so committed to plot construction that its final revelations are hollow and self-contradictory, a film that aspires to moral complexity but ultimately falls into the trap of investing more energy in atmospheric development than in an emotionally satisfying resolution to its story.
This is a shame because the first act is so promising that it almost feels like it belongs in another film. As shy country girl Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) pursues her academic dream of studying fashion in London, she discovers that her classmates’ modern, evil attitudes don’t match her modest love of the 1960s pop aesthetic. At the same time, the male residents of her new neighborhood are portrayed as vicious invaders of her personal space. So Ellie seeks off-campus housing in a retro room rented by the elderly Miss Collins (Diana Rigg).
But when the neon sign flashes out of her skylight, her evening reverie slips into the late 1960s as she follows nightclub singer Sandie (Anya-Taylor Joy), who is seduced by her manager Jack (Matt Smith). At the same time, she watches from the other side of Sandie’s reflection.
This allows Ellie to emulate Sandie’s contemporary fashion, providing a template for her clothing designs and a new, more urban sense of style. But when Sandie’s meteoric career turns out to be far more exploitative than it seems, Ellie’s life also begins to merge with the horrors of the past.
This is both symbolic, as an older man (Terence Stamp) takes a keen interest in Ellie’s newfound confidence, which might suggest a shared knowledge of Sandie’s past, and highly literal, as the ghosts of the past divide reality between Ellie’s dreams and her waking life, conjuring ghostly hallucinations that mirror the dark depths of Sandie’s fall.
It’s in these moments of supernatural horror that the film shines brightest, when faceless, shifting figures prowl the side corridors and shelves of the library like a horde of stalkers, with no identity other than their unequivocal intent to harm and their anonymity amidst the city crowd. Wright’s quick-cut horror scenes are incredibly effective, but perhaps less so when he relies heavily on psychedelic imagery, making it all the more frustrating as the latter part of the film ramps up the tension at the expense of the emotional core.
Ellie becomes more and more of a non-character in her film, simply serving as a vessel for the ultimate mystery of what happened to Sandie without ever reuniting with her natural desire to become a fashion designer. Although Ellie is established as a nostalgia-obsessed recruit whose obsession with the past is perhaps a bit too rosy, this never leads to a climax for the story, mainly since the film’s denouement provides an all-too-clean conclusion to a level that has otherwise been rather messy for her.
The intended message might be that she – and by extension, we – have overcome certain past atrocities that would be best left buried. Still, Wright’s script is so vague about its moral core that it’s hard to conclude that Ellie has made any significant development from her ordeal.
This is compounded by the film’s rather bizarre idea of commenting on the exploitation of women, which swings so much in favor of specific central narrative turns that it fails to say anything coherent. The emphasis on persecution lends itself to a kind of didactic moralism that the film seems to follow at first. Still, the more explicit the persecution becomes, the more blurry the message becomes, making it hard to see that the film has any perspective on patriarchy other than to say that violence against everyone is wrong.
One of the most telling moments of the climax is the narrow departure from the explicit statement that even rapists have feelings. This setup is perhaps too nuanced to condense into a few seconds of a crushing foot of death that drags our heroine to hell.
Last Night in Soho is more an exercise in frustration than anything else. The first act is so strong that it prepares you for a film that explores the evolution of urban female aspirations over 50 years, perhaps taking off the nostalgic glasses to show that things weren’t any rosier for women today. But the film is almost the opposite: it so emphasizes the horrors of the past that it loses its connection to the present and suggests by omission that patriarchal oppression remains rooted in the past.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how clever your puzzle is or how good your scare is if your story is trying to achieve a larger goal. Not every level needs to engage in this kind of cultural conversation. Still, Last Night in Soho plays so brazenly with feminist commentary that it just doesn’t make it, and that becomes sadly obvious when the layers are peeled back to the point of shock. There’s a reason model parade designers’ clothes down runways: A model will never do justice to beautiful clothes.