Director Edgar Wright's latest film, Last Night in Soho, continues his journey through as many different genres as he can tackle. This time, he brings his brand of off-kilter humor and impeccable music taste to the London of the Swinging Sixties, using it as a backdrop for a flashy, pop art horror film. Last Night in Soho features outstanding performances from Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy, playing two very different sides of the same coin.
McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit) stars as Eloise Turner, a teenager obsessed with the 1960s who accomplishes her dream of moving from the countryside to London to study fashion design. She also has a mysterious sixth sense that allows her to see her deceased mother. When she arrives in London and moves to an older woman's apartment, that sixth sense shows her something very different. In her dreams, she begins living inside the mind of Sandie (Taylor-Joy), seeing this aspiring singer's past, which also slowly crushes Eloise's perfect, immaculate view of a London that may have never really existed in the first place. Nevertheless, Eloise becomes obsessed with Sandie, to the point of dressing and changing her hair to mirror her tragic idol.
Last Night in Soho's first half is almost a candy-colored vision of the past, as Eloise embraces her new life in London and the world in her mind. When that perfect image begins falling apart, the movie, written by Wright with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917), transforms as well. The twists and turns run a mile a minute, forcing Wright to do his best to keep the train running on the track. It's hard to do, and he almost pulls it off. He drags the film from a Vertigo-inspired drama about a person losing their own identity to the past into an unhinged horror-thriller that loses sight of the critical themes established at the beginning.
That beginning is a tough act to follow with the glimmering cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung and the deliciously wicked performance from Matt Smith, the man Sandie fell in love with and who shattered her worldview. Wright is at his best then, picking the perfect needle-drop moments and packing in funny edits that make his best films work. In some ways, the movie also plays like a London-set version of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, right down to including memorable roles for legends of the past, including Terence Stamp, Rita Tushingham, and the late Diana Rigg.
All of Last Night in Soho would come crashing down if McKenzie wasn't truly as incredible as she is. Although Taylor-Joy is at the center of the film's marketing - understandably, since she just starred in The Queen's Gambit - this is the McKenzie show. She has an incredibly bright future, and the character transformation she achieves is impressive. We are introduced to her as a wide-eyed teenager with Audrey Hepburn posters and Dusty Springfield records spinning. Still, by the movie's end, McKenzie has turned Eloise into a completely new person. She is even up to the challenge as playing Taylor-Joy as Sandie when she needs to.
Last Night in Soho is stylish to the extreme, but it does have something under that shiny surface. The themes are right there, as Eloise learns her passion for 1960s London might be misplaced and that trying to be someone else can be a dangerous proposition. The real horror comes in this film when the dream state shatters to reveal that every decade is just like any other, worts and all.