English filmmaker Edgar Wright’s “Last Night in Soho” sees the creative emergence between his impulses as a stylist and his interest in stories about misfits in overwhelming situations. As with his trilogy of comedies starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End”), this movie focuses on a character that is ill-equipped to deal with a plot that heavily features genre tropes that the audience is fully aware of. What separates this journey is that Wright’s approach to the subject matter does away with most of the comedic distance and the parodic irony that excuses the charming cluelessness his characters usually display.
Thomasin McKenzie plays Eloise — a small-town Brit who moves to London to attend a prestigious fashion and design school. Unlike the uptown girls she meets early on, her obsession is with London’s iconic 1960s era. She listens to Dusty Springfield and The Who, she loves beehive hairdos and loose-fit gowns, and she yearns for a simpler time for female fashion. After quickly growing tired of her modern party dorm, she moves into a quiet room across from a bistro that smells of garlic and blares a flashing neon sign into her window. It’s modest but she loves it.
This new environment proves to not only inspire her textile projects but her dreams as well. Every night she imagines herself as a would-be nightclub singer named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) who is seduced by a mysterious dapper man named Jack (Matt Smith), who leads her deeper into the 1960s London club scene. Soon these dreams become nightmares, as it becomes apparent that Jack’s intentions on Sandie’s life were less than virtuous, suggesting a lurid world of prostitution and possibly Sandie’s murder.
Wright does a smashing job at creating a cinematic version of both modern and 1960s London. The cross between what is fantasy and what is happening in real-time blurs as the story progresses, and these environments match the rainy, gothic noir tone. Everything from the costumes, the lighting, the soundtrack and the psychedelic editing provides vibrance and life to what can sometimes feel like a tired ghost story.
McKenzie enchants the audience as the bright-eyed protagonist. Smaller roles such as her classmate crush John played by Michael Ajao and Synnove Karlsen as her mean-girl rival, Jocasta, brighten the darker aspects of the plot with a touch of cheeky self-awareness. The inclusion of British acting vets Diana Rigg as her cranky landlord and Terence Stamp as the mysterious man on the street both play into the project’s intentional 60s nostalgia.
The film’s many strengths only serve to underline its shortcomings towards the latter half. As Eloise falls deeper into this mind-bending mystery, her strengths as a character weaken on screen. Starting as a fully-formed, motivated human being, she only becomes a vessel for plot reveals, and the same spunk and verve that made her endearing devolves into a collection of reaction shots and histrionics.
With “Last Night in Soho” it’s clear that Wright wants to meld his love of stylish Italian murder mystery with British gothic horror and ’60s paranoid psycho-thrillers like “Repulsion” and “Carnival of Souls.” But now that he’s growing past the dry, cult comedy style that he refined, he struggles to keep the narrative tension tied to character development while deliberately trying not to send it up. As with his previous effort, “Baby Driver,” there’s a lot of virtuosic filmmaking to admire here, but the storytelling lacks the same rigor and specificity.
Cassidy Robinson is a former Idaho State University student with a master’s degree in film studies from Orange County’s Chapman University. He is currently working as a media journalist in Los Angeles, California.