A medley of pitch-perfect homage to 1960s London, a compelling psychological thriller, a sweet if superficial love story, a tingling murder mystery, intriguing time-travel crime drama, and an only serviceable slasher flick, Last Night in Soho bears the hallmarks of director Edgar Wright’s particular passions, including a fascination with genre cinema and impeccably curated, period-appropriate needle-drops. (Among the soundtrack highlights: tracks by Sandie Shaw and Cilla Black, the latter of whom is ably impersonated on camera by Beth Singh. Black’s 1964 hit “You’re My World” reveals itself, surprisingly, to have a creepily obsessive subtext, with opening strings that could have been lifted from the shower scene in Psycho.)
In short, Soho — which was co-written by Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, an Oscar nominee for 1917 — is a bit all over the map and not by accident.
Watching it feels a little like sitting down to a multicourse meal prepared by a three-star chef: Each dish, from the amuse-bouche to dessert, is beautifully plated and frequently delicious but then whisked away before you’re finished eating it and replaced with the next. Remnants of uneaten food are periodically returned to the table for a reprise, and then, in place of the cognac that caps the evening, all the leftovers are brought back out and scraped into a large bowl for the film’s tonally chaotic climax.
It’s yummy at times but frustrating.
The film follows the misadventures of a small-town fashion student in contemporary London, played by a delightfully wide-eyed Thomasin McKenzie. We first meet McKenzie’s Ellie in Cornwall, where she’s preparing to leave the home she shares with her grandmother Peggy, played by Rita Tushingham, who first made a splash in the 1961 film A Taste of Honey. (Soho is studded with such pleasurable casting throwbacks, including Diana Rigg as Ellie’s eventual London landlord and Terence Stamp as a mysterious stranger — with an unsettlingly intense stare — that Ellie keeps running into on the street once she arrives there.)
In the opening scene, we see Ellie dancing to Peter & Gordon’s “A World Without Love” while dressed in a vintage-looking smock she handmade out of newspaper. She’s a stand-in for Wright’s affection for the past, and once she gets settled in at the London College of Fashion — after some encounters, bad and good, with the resident mean girl (Synnove Karlsen) and an attentive male classmate named John (Michael Ajao) — Ellie’s eye for combining old and new becomes apparent, in more ways than one.
Ellie, you see, has a gift, like something out of The Shining or The Sixth Sense: She sees things and people that aren’t there, including her deceased mother (Aimée Cassettari), who died by suicide years ago, overwhelmed after pursuing the very same course as her daughter. “London can be a lot,” Peggy warns Ellie.
Through some sort of psychic portal Ellie can access while sleeping, our hero travels back in time to the swinging ‘60s every night, where she begins to virtually inhabit the character of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Queen’s Gambit), an aspiring singer who falls under the sway of a creepy pimp (Matt Smith). These dream-visions are vicariously exciting at first, but Ellie’s deep psychological identification with Sandie precipitates scary revelations about old crimes and sexual predation. Visually, Wright creates the bond between Ellie and Sandie masterfully, with the clever use of mirrors and reflection. And Taylor-Joy’s performance — which captures the way a naive young woman might try on the affectations of sophistication, like a dress that doesn’t quite fit her — is a lovely contrast to McKenzie’s more unaffected innocence.
The shifting of gears between the film’s various styles occurs less smoothly, with sometimes jarring tonal transitions between the ghost story at the heart of the narrative and the romance subplot involving Ellie and John. There’s a surface quality to much of the film — it’s glossy, glamorous eye candy — that skims over psychological realism, except in the case of Ellie. Among the film’s characters, the protagonist is the only one who seems to have much an interior life.
There’s lots to like about Soho‘s constituent parts, but not much time to genuinely savor any of them. By its over-the-top ending, Last Night in Soho feels like someone has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at you, one plate at a time. And then comes the sink.