Last Night in Soho feels more David Lynch or David Cronenberg than Edgar Wright. Yet even though it’s the least Wright-vibey film of his career, there’s something about the way he twists the horror genre that makes Last Night in Soho feel like the right entry point into psychological thrillers for the filmmaker who’s given us everything from Shaun of the Dead to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Baby Driver.
Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) dreams of becoming a fashion designer and is over the moon when she learns she’s been accepted into a prestigious London fashion designer college. She celebrates with twirls and swirls to the rhythm of ‘60s pop hits – an old soul trapped in a young woman’s body. From the first frame it’s evident Eloise marches to the beat of a drum only she can hear. It’s also evident this quirky artistic woman has little in common with her peers. Maybe it’s the fact her dead mom pops into her life at random times that keeps Eloise from even attempting to fit in.
Eloise either doesn’t care about first impressions or makes the wrong assumptions about her fellow students as she shows up at the dorm in her own handmade creations. She looks completely out of place among the Kardashian-loving women who reside there and is immediately the brunt of unkind jokes.
Eloise’s loving grandmother, Peggy (Rita Tushingham), reminded her before she took off for college that her mom killed herself after moving to the city. And through the film’s first act we see hints that Eloise could be just as capable of suffering a mental breakdown as her deceased mom.
In order to escape being the butt of mean girl jokes, Eloise takes a part-time job and moves out of the dorm and into a room at Ms. Collins’ house. Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg) expects her new tenant to abide by strict rules, including no boys upstairs, and the strait-laced Eloise quickly agrees to her terms.
Because the official synopsis (and trailers) reveal Eloise is somehow able to travel back in time to the 1960s, I feel safe in including at least that much in this review. Edgar Wright’s made it really difficult to discuss Anya Taylor-Joy’s role in Last Night in Soho and how her character, a gorgeous aspiring singer named Sandie, plays an important part in Eloise’s contemporary London experience.
Once Eloise moves into Ms. Collins’ house, her dreams are filled with people and places from this very neighborhood but back in the ‘60s. She’s somehow able to eavesdrop on Sandie and becomes obsessed with following this vibrant singer’s journey, anxiously returning home each night from her shift at the bar so she can slip off to sleep and join the ambitious and buoyant Sandie on her quest for fame.
Eloise can only watch as Sandie begins making all the wrong decisions, beginning with choosing to become involved with a sleazy promotor named Jack (Matt Smith). As Eloise becomes more caught up in Sandie’s life, her future as a college student and designer is put in jeopardy. Eloise’s ability to discern what’s real from what’s imaginary becomes increasingly difficult and following in her mother’s footsteps edges ever closer to becoming a reality.
As Eloise increasingly spirals out of control, Last Night in Soho transitions from psychological thriller to a full-on supernatural horror, complete with grotesque spirits.
Edgar Wright’s twisted tale is incredibly stylish, with both the London of today and of the 1960s brought to life in intricate detail. Wright’s use of different color palettes for the two decades adds to the illusion Eloise and Sandie are separated by five decades. And then as Eloise loses herself in Sandie’s world, the palette’s merge and her wardrobe shifts to mirror the woman whose life has become more real to her than the people she actually interacts with on a daily basis.
For a good three quarters of the film Wright’s screenplay, co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns, seems a little too complex for its own good. However, Wright and Wilson-Cairns deliver one hell of a sucker punch with the ending. There are so many layers to peel off before it can stick the landing that it’s possible some in the audience might disengage before getting to the big payoff. Fortunately, outstanding performances by Thomasin McKenzie, Anna Taylor Joy, and Matt Smith – along with the late great Diana Rigg – drive the film and hold your attention through the jarring shifts in tone.
Thomasin McKenzie is the heart and soul of the film and is pitch perfect as a college student who briefly believes the world is her oyster before becoming mired in the quicksand of Sandie’s world. McKenzie plays Eloise as so heartbreakingly naïve that it’s impossible to not become invested in her story. As Eloise’s mental health declines, McKenzie never overplays her condition. McKenzie’s able to maintain a grounded element to the character even during fantastical, extreme moments (of which there are quite a few).
There are a few rough spots…Eloise’s wannabe boyfriend is too good to be true and I’m not sure about the ethics of Eloise stealing ideas for dress designs from a ghost…but there’s too much juicy goodness to this bizarre genre-bending thriller to let the minor missteps detract from the overall experience.
Writer/director Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho is strange and fascinating. It’s also refreshingly original and provides a satisfying break from the comic book adaptations, sequels, and spinoffs currently flooding theaters.
MPAA Rating: R for brief drug material, bloody violence, brief graphic nudity, language, and sexual content
Release Date: October 29, 2021
Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes
Studio: Focus Features