With all of the delicacy of a meat cleaver, the latest film from Edgar Wright is an erroneously clumsy take on female empowerment. A direct homage to the Italian Giallo movement of the ’60s and ’70s with its technicolor spotlights, Bambi-eyed ingenues and third-act mania with countless slashing knives, there is no denying the visual splendor of Last Night in Soho, but that isn’t enough to distract from the shallow narrative desperately flailing to keep the film together.
Wright has often touched on the work he admires to build his own stories and, for the most part, this has resulted in success, with his stylish and kinetic filmmaking offering endlessly engaging worlds. That said, he has been known to fall victim to the “style over substance” side of things, and Last Night in Soho suffers greatly because of it, as it tries to be both a delectable, visual feast and a cautionary tale. Only Baby Driver has been a nuisance to watch out of Wright’s career thus far, but it’s his latest that has first drawn immediate anger in its mishandling of subject matters and hamfisted need to be about something and, in the meantime, saying nothing of value at all.
Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) comes from a troubled past but has seemingly found her outlet as she’s accepted into college to study to be a fashion designer. However, after finding herself ill-suited to dorm life, she moves into an apartment run by the landlady, played by Diana Rigg, and once moved in, she begins to mysteriously be able to enter the 1960s. It’s there that she encounters a wannabe singer and is immediately enchanted. However, she soon learns that glamour is nothing more than smoke and mirrors which mask an insidious and darker truth.
Despite the superficial story, the performances across the board are superb. McKenzie has already proven herself to be a rising talent with projects such as Leave No Trace and Jojo Rabbit, and in Last Night in Soho, she cements her leading lady presence in a physically demanding role that asks for a severe level of duality between her innate mousiness, confidence in her abilities, and soon nearing hysteria. Matt Smith, as Sandie’s manager/pimp Jack, also delivers a performance that is surprisingly threatening, utilizing his elastic face to charm and scowl in equal measures, leaving Sandie suitably destabilized when his seedier intentions are uncovered.
However, it’s Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance as Sandie that produces the biggest questions and shines the brightest light on the greatest, damning misstep the film makes.
Somehow, even with her considerable talent and effervescent charisma, Taylor-Joy is grossly underserved and, similarly, her character Sandie is never granted necessary autonomy. While that lack of agency makes sense in her relationship with Jack and his mistreatment of her, it doesn’t fit with the theme the film is desperate to convince viewers it was acting on behalf of the whole time and not just the last murky and muddled last third.
Sandie is the prime example of style taking precedence, but in this case, it’s less so style as it is artifice by way of artistic vanity. There’s nothing wrong with indulging in how well suited the actress is to the 60s aesthetic. Hell, if the story wished to be a slasher tale, her thinly written character may have been enough, especially considering just how enormously Ellie projects on to and admires her.
It would make narrative sense for Ellie’s literal “dream girl” to be as hollow and ghostly as Ellie initially believes her to be if that was what the film sought. Instead, the screenplay by Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns gets its sticky fingers into gender politics, and, subsequently, goes off the rails. Its purpose is to demonstrate power imbalance, but such a fact is so known and so delicately laid bare in films past and present, that to slap the conversation on as a twist isn’t just tacky but also self-serving. Last Night in Soho might’ve been empty thrills and fun had it relied simply on the director’s considerable skill as an engaging and detailed filmmaker and film history nerd fanatic, but once it tried to “say something,” it became the narrative equivalent of hot air.
And it’s a shame because, for all the narrative upheaval, the first hour of the film is largely entertaining due to the technical flourishes of all involved. From the score by Steven Prince that marries itself so well to the mystique of the first act and the fever dreamscapes Ellie finds herself in as captured by Wright to his DP Chung Chung-hoon’s ability to visualize the mental claustrophobia Ellie is experiencing as each night she’s submerged into yet another dizzying nightmare, the film is stunning to look at.
Wright has delivered incredible work before and, no doubt, he’ll be given plenty of opportunities to do so again. That said, the sour taste Last Night in Soho leaves in its wake is considerable and only worsens in time spent away from his visuals and more time lost in the incredulous writing decisions that the last third delivers our way.
Messily constructed and passively written, Last Night in Soho is best forgotten.
Last Night in Soho is now playing in theaters. Watch the official trailer here.