Carnaby Street. Regent Street. Oxford Street. Piccadilly Circus. The West End.
These are all areas of London, and they’re all part of or adjacent to Soho, the legendary neighborhood that defined the age of Swinging London during the 1960s, when the heart of the English capital went from gloomy, grey, dull to bright, exciting and eccentric. Mary Quant, the Beatles, the mods, sexual liberation become symbols of the changing capital, and they still are part of the national culture.
Current time. Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) is a young aspiring fashion designer from the countryside. She has a troubled family history (her mother committed suicide due to schizophrenia) and she can’t wait to break loose from the shackles of provincial life. She has just been accepted into one of London’s leading fashion schools, and her impact with the city is traumatic: her shy, introverted attitude is at odds with the brash life approach of her urban-raised schoolmates. She makes the decision to quit the student halls to move into a room taken for rent in Miss Collins’ (Diana Rigg) house. During her first night in the room, she finds herself mysteriously transported to 1960s London, during the city’s radical change. She finds that she has an alter-ego of sorts during that time, aspiring singer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), working her way through the city’s flourishing music scene with the help of her manager Jack (Matt Smith). Each night, Eloise travels back in time, she learns, she adapts, she’s in for the ride. Everything changes when the two realities start to collapse into each other. At that point, things fall apart.
A Londoner for the last 25 years, Edgar Wright had pledged to himself to make a movie about the city’s most influential time in 20th century. Why is Soho such a mythical please for English people? Why was it so instrumental in the modernization of an entire country? What was the cost of that process? What was its dark side? Last Night in Soho is the result of this reflection.
Ambitious and bold, Last Night in Soho is Wright’s first attempt at full horror in his career. In the film, he tributes the film masters that influenced him in the endeavor (Dario Argento, David Lynch, Roman Polanski, Brian De Palma, George Romero) and at the same time he also tries to inject his signature style, making the final product entertaining, occasionally electrifying but also unfocused and chaotic. The actors play their roles with gusto, with scene-stealing Anya Taylor-Joy leading the pack, along with a vulnerable and deeply relatable Thomasin McKenzie, but it is mostly in the direction and in the script that lie the faults of the film. Creative and derivative, energetic and visceral but overwhelming, Last Night in Soho feels more like a collection of ideas thrown at the wall to see which ones stick than a fully coherent movie. This becomes especially clear in the final act where Wright goes full-blown horror, with cheap jump scares and a series of multiple twists that could be easily seen coming, betraying the promising, if uneven, approach that had marked the first two-thirds of the film.
The movie also has its virtues: the depiction of Swinging London as a game-changing moment in England’s recent history but also as a concrete jungle populated with wolves and zombies is interesting and engaging, as is the use of music, choreography and light in the film: dance and singing sequences, as well as action scenes, are directed with flair, with music proving a key element in giving the movie a sinister atmosphere.
The final result for Last Night in Soho is a movie that, despite its evident shortcomings, can still provide entertainment.
This review is from the Venice Film Festival. Focus Features will release Last Night in Soho in theaters on October 22.
Photos: Parisa Taghizadeh / Focus Features