There’s something about seeing a beloved filmmaker maturing in their career that makes me stupidly grin like a proud papa. I felt it with Sam Raimi when he put out A Simple Plan and I felt it with Peter Jackson when Heavenly Creatures was released – yes, I preferred their sillier, more raucous pictures, but to see them utilising their talents while growing as filmmakers was a wonderful experience to behold.
It’s this same feeling I got while settled down in front of Edgar Wright’s Last Night In Soho, arguably the most “mature” film he’s made since taking his final bite of his magnificent Cornetto Trilogy. Putting the video game battles of Scott Pilgrim and the stylised car chases of Baby Driver in his rear view, Wright has attempted a genre piece quite unlike anything he’s ever done before and while it might not fly quite as high as some of his earlier works, Last Night In Soho still proves to be a night worth remembering.
Painfully vunerable Eloise is heading to London from Cornwall in order to achieve her dream of becoming a fashion designer despite her nan’s worries that the city will swallow her whole and not long after arriving she has already had to weather experiences with a lecherous cab driver and some two-faced mean girls in her class. However, the mousey Eloise has a support system in that she continually submerges herself in her beloved 60’s culture, listening to old records and indulging in the fashions of the era in order to feel closer to her death mother. Ultimately feeling the pressure of London pressing down on her thanks to the stress of university, Eloise leaves her student lodgings and finds a flat to live in run by the crotchety Ms Collins – and its here where things start to get a little strange.
You see, Eloise has the talent to “feel” the past and used to constantly “see” her mother and whatever this extra sensory perception is, it sends her careening back to the 60’s while seeing things through the feline eyes of wannabe singer, Sandy. As she watches this driven women try to achieve her dreams through charisma and sheer force of will, Eloise can’t help but feel some of this woman’s confidence rub off on her and she uses Sandy as an inspiration for some of her fashion designs, but soon her nightly jaunts to another decade soon reveals the darkness that lurks around every corner as Sandy’s story becomes ever more desperate as her swaggering boyfriend Jack takes advantage of her looks during a time and place where women were a commodity that was easily chewed up and spat out by an unfeeling city.
As reality starts to rapidly blur, Eloise starts to see horrific visions of ghostly, grasping men wherever she goes – but how certain is she that this isn’t all in her head and that the rigours of living in the big city hasn’t overwhelmed her to the point that her sanity has started to fray?
While there is an incredible amount to adore with Wright’s unabashed love letter to the titular location, I do feel I have to begin by mentioning the things that don’t quite work just so I can end the review with a crap-load of positive stuff and the main thing that offsets the movie’s crack at flawlessness is that a fair chunk of the “real world” stuff just feels a little forced. Now, I understand that the director is juxtapositioning the starkness of our heroine’s day life with the dark fantasy of her travels to the past but the characters who inhabit her fashion classes feel horribly stock and unimaginative – plus, for a horror movie that flirts strongly with mystery, it’s not particularly scary or surprising with the twist being fairly easy to crack long before the denouement.
Now we’ve gotten that unpleasant – but necessary – stuff out of the way, Last Night In Soho consistently overcomes its flaws to be a frequently exhilarating ride loaded with the auteur’s stunning visual flair. Utilising the kind of lush visual pallet usually reserved for Italian horror meísters such as Dario Argento and Mario Bava, Wright adds his own impeccable sense of timing to the truly spellbinding scenes set in the 60’s. Its here the movie truly comes alive as our lead is seduced by the life of the vibrant Sandy and thanks to some astounding use of mirrors and a dance sequence that encompasses Sandy, her rogueish boyfriend Jack, Eloise and a flawlessly choreographed cameraman, you’ll be flummoxed as to how they managed to pull it all off.
But impressive technical chicanery aside, the other thing that holds Last Night In Soho together is the central performance of Thomasin McKenzie as the slightly infantile Eloise who manages to hold the screen despite her character being in almost a constant state of panic for the entire movie. In the hands of a lesser actress the character could veer dangerously into the realms of annoyingly shrieky (which she actually did a bit in M. Night Shyamalan’s overwrought Old), McKenzie’s mounting hysteria actually feels genuine, even when she’s being pestered by Romero-esque visions of countless, faceless ghouls. In comparison, Anya Taylor-Joy’s Sandy and Matt Smith’s Jack feel more like supporting characters as they chiefly pop up in the past segments, but they’re also integral in creating the world that Wright obviously couldn’t wait to capture on film. A massive awning advertising Thunderball greets us as we creep progressively deeper into this time-gone-by and the stonking soundtrack, that features everyone from Cilla Black to Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Titch, enhance things even further as we fall down the rabbit hole with our infatuated lead.
The final piece of the puzzle is the sub-plot concerning the fact that regardless of what time period we may be in, women are still in constant danger from the machinations of predatory men. Be it a leering cabbie in the present day who assumes it’s ok to comment on Eloise’s body or the living hell that Sandy finds herself spiralling into as her dreams of stardom turn to ash, it’s an impressive leap for a director mainly famous for a trio of comedies featuring blokey man-children and it all ties into the weirdly parental pride I feel for Wright for trying new things with his output.
Maybe not as a perfect experience as Shaun Of The Dead or Baby Driver, Last Night Is Soho still boasts a director at the height of his powers expanding and experimenting with his comfort zone while still delivering a visual knockout.
Mark my words, this night in Soho will be far from Wright’s last. This is only the beginning.