MOVIES: Last Night in Soho – Review


Last Night in Soho is Edgar Wright’s latest feature – hot on the heels of the excellent Sparks Brothers documentary that came out earlier this year, and works as an ode to the seedy underbelly of ‘60s London and the horror films of a bygone age – the shadows of films like Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom are heavy over this mood piece but not always in a good way, with Wright not really advancing with the changing times – like his characters this film feels very much stuck in the past, unable to let go.

Designed to be watched on a dark, cold winter night – watching it next to Soho itself only enhanced the experience, especially queuing in the early hours of the morning. Wright’s faithful recreation of the ‘60s is excellent, a real artists dream – the first glimpse we see into the past is a neon-lit theatre advertising Sean Connery’s Thunderball, complete with the old-school Bond posters. If there’s a filmmaker who knows his ‘60s British cinematic history it’s Edgar Wright – you only need to glance at his list of 1,000 favourite films to find out where his tastes lie – there couldn’t have been, on paper at least – a better filmmaker suited for this project.

The glamour, the hope, the dreams are all there. But as Thomasin McKenzie’s Eloise is about to find out, it’s easy to get lost in the glamour and forget the reality. It’s a damning critique of the façade of nostalgia – Eloise herself, is a fashion student with an old soul – she grew up in Cornwall and moved to London after the death of her mum, wearing clothes she designed herself. On the first night she instantly finds herself out of her depth in halls with city-born students her own age – the living embodiment of the “not like other girls” trope – the hostile environment appearing unwelcoming with no remorse – and moves to a quieter, remote building with an elderly landlord, played by Diana Rigg in sadly her last film role, a posthumous release – and it’s a treat seeing Rigg star one more time as she brings a hefty screen presence to the role.

Eloise watches the ‘60s nightmare unfold before her eyes in her dreams – a window in the past presented to her from the future. In this past she is Sandy, an aspiring singer – played superbly by Anya Taylor Joy, who excels with her delivery of Petula Clark’s Downtown, haunting the spoiler-y second trailer that was released prior to this film. She’s offered the chance of management by Matt Smith’s character Jack who is described as something as a ‘ladies man’ by those who knew him – but Sandy soon discovers that he has ulterior motives – and all Eloise can do is watch from the future, unable to escape the past.

It’s a tantalising set-up backed with an unreliable narrator. A Doctor Who novel tie-in featuring the Weeping Angels stated that the past is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there – it’s not quite as idealised as you’d expect, and there’s a reason why certain technological advancements have happened and why society has generally moved forward – even Soho is a world removed from its ’60s portrayal here. Eloise has her reality shattered around her – and the ghosts of the past come filtering back to the present in a way that escalates over the film – maybe relying on a touch too many CGI to bluntly make that point known, but it’s a dizzying approach that works as a fascinating premise with one of the best movie titles of the year.

Unfortunately, the first 30-40 minutes are Last Night in Soho at its peak and the comedown is hard and fast. Problems start setting in when Wright, who has struggled with endings as of late, especially in Baby Driver (where many of that film’s problems rear its ugly head again), tries to craft a memorable one – but the overuse on CGI fails to excite or thrill and it takes you out of the experience the more you see of it. All the glitz and the glamour of Wright’s stylish recreation of Soho can’t hide the fact that the ending itself is intensely problematic, for all the wrong reasons – which won’t be discussed her for spoilers’ sake. All I’m saying for now is that the direction that he took Last Night in Soho in may not have been the best one – not helped by the strong lack of any kind of consequences or resolution – and the fact that some of the characters are so thin on the ground they may not feel like characters at all.

More of a mood piece than a traditional horror, Last Night in Soho has a few scares – sometimes even an onslaught of them at once, but it’s more of a ghost story than a Hollywood fright a minute fest. It’s inventive in its narrative – and there’s nothing quiet like it around right now. Wright’s originality in that matter in giving the film a clear voice should be praised.

That said, as the credits rolled, I was kind of left with a feeling in the end of leaving this movie “was that it?” It’s an escapist rollercoaster fair, where despite the actors’ intentions none of the characters feel real – they’re too shallow, the supporting cast virtually non-existent beyond tired tropes (I’ve never met bullies as harsh as that at any college, let alone any university I’ve been to, especially in central London), and even Eloise feels lacking in meaningful character development by the end. It lends to an overall hollow feeling – especially with Wright’s eclectic ‘60s soundtrack it kind of feels like a music video, without of the substance to back it up – it’s like he was more interested in the ‘60s songs than putting any thought into where the film would go.

The humour in Wright’s work is very London centric which makes me curious to see how well of the jokes play outside of the capital – and especially outside of the UK, but a character making a comment about needing a car to get from North to South London (how else would you travel between the two indeed?) was among the high points of the film although those unaware of the by-the-minute geography may miss the mark. I must admit, as someone who grew up in Devon before moving back to London and is now living in Somerset, I instantly related to Eloise’ reaction when Jocasta tells her bluntly that she’s sorry she’s from Cornwall. Unfortunately, the rest of the modern day dialogue can be a bit hit and miss at the best of times, lacking the authenticity and honesty of the ‘60s dialogue – Last Night in Soho was almost begging for a purely historical horror rather than a split narrative, even if it works as showcasing Wright’s sheer visual range as a narrator.

Had Last Night in Soho stuck the landing it would have been my favourite of the year – but while there’s a lot to like about it – the music, the atmosphere and the performances (although Smith doesn’t quite escape his tendency to just play The Doctor in all of his roles – even in characters so far removed from the Time Lord and feels like the weakest link here) supplement a strong opening act, but unfortunately the rest of the film is just never as good, best described as a high concept idea that never fully comes together.

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