The tone of Last Night in Soho may be hard to grasp before going in, as the premise has been poorly explained online and elsewhere. It’s often said to be a psychological horror movie about a girl obsessed with fashion going back in time and into the body of a night-club singer and style icon with a sordid life, but these descriptors pretty blatantly mischaracterize things. Director Edgar Wright may be most admired for Shaun of the Dead, what may arguably be the greatest horror comedy of all time, or at the very least, of the new millennium. The components of his latest mashup are horror, fantasy, and mystery, elements often present in the tales of Shirley Jackson, Algernon Blackwood, and M.R. James, among others. Psychological terror absolutely ensues, but you’d be hard pressed to call it the main driving force. No, Last Night in Soho is, on the most fundamental level, a ghost story.
Rather than simply liking fashion, Eloise Turner (a magnetic Thomasin McKenzie) attends a prestigious fashion design school in North London. She’s different from many of the other students. She’s shy and feels out of place, originating from the countryside and not the bustling city. She has a fascination with swinging ‘60s culture and listens to music from that era exclusively, often on vinyl. Also, she’s a clairvoyant. After moving out of her dorm to escape a mean-girl clique and moving into a creepy townhouse owned by mysterious, elderly landlady Miss Collins (veteran actress Diana Rigg, who sadly passed away last year), she begins having psychic dreams that take her into the past. She’s not so much placed into the body of aspiring singer Sandie, (Anya Taylor-Joy, need I say more?) as she is linked to her, stuck passively watching as Sandie’s ambition and naïvety lead her into the clutches of a manipulative and violent pimp (a menacing Matt Smith). Eloise sees Sandie headed towards a violent end, and becomes immersed in and haunted by the world that once inspired her.
There’s almost this impulse to jump to Last Night in Soho’s defense before even going into why the movie is good. Early reception for it has been oddly lukewarm. True, it doesn’t quite match the energy of Wright’s most lauded works, like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but that shouldn’t come across as a detriment. First of all, it’s still an Edgar Wright movie in every respect, from a reverently British soundtrack to whiplash editing. His usual pacing does seem slightly slowed down for this movie, but considering his typical velocity, that shouldn’t indicate anything near slowness; indeed, a slightly slowed down Edgar Wright is still much snappier than your average horror movie, and this departure from his norm has a wonderful effect for this oneiric and possessing story.
Wright has a definitive gift for setting the appropriate momentum, and his traditional orientation leans toward rapidity, filled with snap pans and quick cuts in a repeated rhythm. This time, however, there’s a wonderfully fluid, syrupy pace, one that revels in the vivid atmosphere of a dreamed-up 1960s London nightclub scene and avoids too much cutting, instead centering another, less remarked upon Wrightian camera move— the brief dolly-in to a significant detail or person in moments of foreshadowing. With this he has a ready-made tool in his Style Bag to present us with all the leads and red herrings necessary to construct a decent mystery. Wright also makes wonderful use of mirrors, a staple of self-referential film symbolism, something that psychically unites the leads and also delightfully scrambles the point of view so that fantasy, reality, and even the placement of the viewer in real life amalgamates into one shared dream (of course, watching in the theater is ideal).
Perhaps the film’s opponents (or reluctant fans) object to some of the movie’s noticeable flaws so much that it takes that out of the dream. In all fairness, these flaws are readily apparent. There’s more than one cliché knocking about in the screenplay. Eloise has a couple “not-like-the-other-girls” lines, such as declaring older music to be better than modern music, and there doesn’t seem to be a knowing irony in her saying this, no indication that believing she’s special for liking older things should be read as a self-conscious flex. And if one requires subtlety in films about misogyny, then look elsewhere. The theme of women’s objectification and abuse are very on-the-nose in a way that doesn’t seem too curious about the issue, and doesn’t illuminate anything new. Perhaps what might annoy viewers the most is the predictability. It really isn’t hard to figure out the truth once the movie gets past the halfway point.
Still, these flaws can not only be forgiven, but they nearly disappear as a result of slick execution. The clichés seem almost playful and necessary, as this girl-meets-wolf story situates itself firmly in the traditions of fairy-tale. The characters, even when they do the obvious or lack self-awareness, are written so endearingly that it feels natural. The themes, though hamfisted, are expressed so harrowingly that their bluntness becomes more than acceptable. It’s an emotional truth and not so much an intellectual one. They don’t probe the intricacies of rape culture so much as they stare hard into the greater shame of society with an unrelenting and horrified gaze. And while most people will figure out the ending early on, that’s almost beside the point. The movie cares less about whodunnit than why and how.
Last Night in Soho isn’t meant to be predictable in the sense that, say, The Shining is meant to be predictable. Obviously the audience knows that Jack Torrance will go crazy and try to kill his family practically from the beginning, and it’s the dread of knowing what’s to come that compels them to continue watching. Last Night in Soho doesn’t have the dramatic irony to generate such dread, but instead compensates with the phantasmagoric and the grotesque, by filling the screen with giallo-esque brutality and faceless ghouls that frighten not only for their appearance but also for their representation of a truly heinous reality. | Nic Champion