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Last Night in Soho is a brand new film from British filmmaker Edgar Wright. When I find out Wright is making a movie, I immediately pay attention; almost every single one of his films is at least very good, and some are even among the modern greats.
In the last decade alone, Wright made two of my favorites movies of the modern era, the first being Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and then later, Baby Driver, which I maintain is an amazingly satisfying movie that has a bit of a middling reputation among other critics, but I find it to be a triumph of editing and stunt work, oh and it’s also the epitome of what action movies should strive to be in the age of ubiquitous CGI.
Of course, many others are quicker to celebrate Wright’s Cornetto trilogy, with Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead in particular being considered his best films overall and for good reason. When I look at Wright’s list of films, though, I see a persistent attitude from him, a spirit of innovation in which he can’t sit still on what’s worked for him before. And that certainly explains how a movie like Last Night in Soho, which is almost unrecognizable in many ways as a Wright film, has come to be.
I’ll start with the bad news. Last Night in Soho is far and away the worst of Wright’s films and by a massive margin. It’s a psychological horror both written and directed by Wright, with Krysty Wilson-Cairns as co-screenwriter — she last co-wrote 1917 with Sam Mendes. And it’s a movie sort of dabbling in Quentin Tarantino mode, where it’s trying quite hard to purposefully invoke and pay tribute to movies of the 1960s and 1970s. It begins with the unique style and flair of Wright’s usual direction, but over time you see loads of Hitchcock and Argento, an odd combination that should work on paper but ultimately dissolves into oil and water.
The film is at its highest level during the first 45 minutes to an hour, as we meet a young woman named Eloise played by the always great Thomasin McKenzie, who goes off to University in London, or Soho to be specific, in order to study fashion and design. We learn right away that Eloise is a bit different, and not just socially because she grew up in the country. She happens to have a sixth sense for seeing dead people, including her late mother who also sojourned to London as a young woman but couldn’t quite handle the pressure, particularly when it came to unwanted advancements from men.
While in Soho, Eloise takes up in a boarding house after she finds that her dormitory is a bit too overwhelming for what she’s used to. She’s a bit old fashioned, she likes to make her own clothes, and she has a deep fondness for the 1960s. This culminates when at at certain point in the film, she finds herself dreaming a mirrored version of the past, in which she becomes an alternate version of herself named Sandy, played electrically by Anya Taylor-Joy.
At this point in the movie, I’m really grooving with its wavelength just as easily as I have with many of Wright’s other films. There are dazzling practical effects, sweeping musical scores; I instantly connect and empathize with Eloise herself and want to see her succeed no matter the conflict. But as I mentioned before, the film devolves into being a horror feature, and not a very good one.
Again, this is a bold move that should be invigorating and challenging in all the right ways. It reflects the pain and uncertainty and sheer fear of living in a place all on your own at this age, coming into it with all the confidence of youth, only to find crowds of horrors you can’t predict or control. Translating that feeling through the metaphor of film is a grand idea, and you can tell Wright’s heart is in it. But for whatever reason, the screenplay falls apart, perhaps under its own weight. The clever, sharp dialogue of the first half gives way to shouting and incessant character choices that are intended to evoke desperation but instead make you wonder how these people tie their own shoes. There are some thought-provoking twists and turns, but almost none of them are hard to see coming long, long, long before they present themselves as these ghastly, unbelievable revelations.
And the worst of it all is that while trying to transition from dreamlike spectacle to absolute nightmare, the film somehow becomes duller despite the blood and ghouls. It’s not dull in terms of the cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung or Steven Price’s music, to be clear. And none of the actors are cutting corners, save for maybe Matt Smith who gets to chew a debonair role early on, only for it to suddenly drop to the level of parody. I have no complaints whatsoever for McKenzie or Taylor-Joy, who give their absolute all with material that just simply lets them down.
When films misfire like this, it’s rarely due to one major problem. We like to think that if they had just fixed this one thing, or maybe cast this person or tightened up this scene in the script, well perhaps we’d have a great film on our hands. But ultimately, it’s a domino effect at best. If there is a root cause, be it timing or a rushed due date for the film, it impacted so many other elements of the entire production that you’re left with death by a thousand film reel cuts.
It’s a bit harsh, and that’s only because the promise of this film is exactly that strong at the start. I think most people who watch the early part of this film will wonder why some critics like me are turning their nose up at it. But unfortunately, I also expect that many will have the same reaction I did when the film heel turns into a regrettable shadow of its former potential.
Last Night in Soho opens in theaters this weekend, distributed by Focus Features in North America and Universal for the rest of the world.
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