Stephen King meets “The Twilight Zone”. That’s the vibe I got from the trailers for Edgar Wright’s much anticipated new movie “Last Night in Soho”. Turns out I wasn’t too far off. This psychological horror thriller has elements that would be right at home on the pages of an early King novel or being introduced by Rod Serling on a Fall Friday evening on CBS. Yet you can’t miss Wright’s own special ingredients sewn into the fabric of his film.
“Last Night in Soho” explores the darker side of London’s West End during the not-so-groovy 1960s through the eyes of Eloise “Ellie” Turner, a young aspiring fashion designer and dressmaker. Much like Gil Pender in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”, Ellie holds onto a romanticized image of a bygone era. For her it’s the lights, the music, and the energy of London’s Swinging Sixties. But as Wright so vividly informs us, there was a dirtier, seedier side that could eat you alive. Especially wide-eyed unsuspecting young women.
We first meet Ellie (played with mousy charm by the always terrific Thomasin McKenzie) in her own homemade dress dancing to Peter and Gordon’s “A World Without Love”. Having lost both of her parents, Ellie lives in rural Cornwall with her loving and supportive grandmother (Rita Tushingham). And then a dream comes true when she’s accepted into the London College of Fashion. Soon she’s leaving the security of home, hopping a train for London with nothing but a suitcase and a Dansette record player.
Dorm life proves to be overwhelming for Ellie with the non-stop parties and her despicable snoot of a roommate Jocasta (Synnove Karlsen). So she scraps together her money and rents out a small but cozy bedsit owned by the elderly Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg). During her first night she has a dream that transports her back to 1966. In it she walks the bustling Soho streets ending up at the Café de Paris nightclub. Inside she’s swept away by the glow of the lights and buzz of the crowd. But in the mirror she sees a reflection, not of herself, but that of a beautiful confident blonde named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). Sandie is charmed by the club’s manager, a shifty looking sort named Jack (Matt Smith) and the two end the dream with some bubbly Old Hollywood swoon.
Wright uses a number of cool visual touches that help tell Sandie’s story while also reminding us that this is Ellie’s dream – clever tricks that repeatedly show Sandie as Ellie’s reflection. But at times he surprises us with nearly undetectable changes in perspective where Ellie is suddenly cast as the reflection. It’s a crafty bit of foreshadowing that teases layers of the story that will be peeled back later in the movie.
As the dreams of Sandie and Jack continue each night, Ellie finds inspiration. She dyes her hair blonde and uses her visions to create new fashion designs at school. But when the dreams slowly turn to nightmares, Ellie struggles to grasp what is real and what isn’t. Is she having a breakdown much like her mother did years earlier? Is she losing her identity? Or is it something more sinister?
The story (written by Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns) is made up of two very different halves. Without question, the first half is the strongest both in terms of telling Ellie’s story and in transporting us back in time. The 1960s sequences are especially grand with their incredible period detail and dreamy nostalgic pull. But as Wright and Wilson-Cairns begin chipping away at that facade, they expose a tangibly dirty and forbidding underbelly. The slow shift in tone within the first half is deftly handled and builds some of film’s best tension.
The second half turns into a delirious duel-pronged mystery as we try to find out what’s going on inside Ellie’s mind, and she tries to find out the truth about Sandie. Was she real? If so, what happened to her? Several other characters play bigger roles in the second half. The great Terrance Stamp plays a creepy silver-haired gent who I wish had more screen time. Instead that time is given to Ellie’s puppy dog admirer John (Michael Ajao), an unconvincing cookie-cutter love interest who quickly wears out his welcome.
While a really good Anya Taylor-Joy has been getting much of the attention, it’s Thomasin McKenzie who propels the movie. It’s absolutely essential that we connect with her character and understand the emotional complexities Ellie brings with her to London. McKenzie makes it easy with her natural earnestness and disarming warmth. The more erratic second half leads her in a few directions that don’t exactly play to her strengths, but that’s a fault of the writing more so than the performance.
Over the years Edgar Wright has earned himself a loyal and enthusiastic following. While I admire his skill behind the camera, I haven’t always connected with his movies the way others do. That’s a big reason why I was genuinely excited to see him try something new with “Last Night in Soho”. While the results are a bit uneven, it’s an audacious effort with lots to like: the fantastic cast, the killer soundtrack, its intoxicating style and verve. And while it loses its way a bit and ends on a mixed note, Wright and his cast make this wickedly enchanting journey worthwhile. “Last Night in Soho” is now playing in theaters.