'Last Night in Soho' review: A '60s fever dream, squandered
Promising at the start, Edgar Wright's latest hits a dead end when it switches gears and becomes a horror film.
Edgar Wright's "Last Night in Soho" is a swinging celebration of the '60s, a rich, buoyant, immersive toast to the decade's styles, fashion and music.
Until it's not. The good times grind to a halt about midway through this thriller as it takes a misguided plunge into horror territory and never recovers. It's one of the more abrupt and lamentable turns taken by any movie in recent memory. Is it possible to keep the first half and get a do-over on the second, please?
The wonderful Thomasin McKenzie ("Jojo Rabbit") stars as Eloise Turner, Ellie for short. She's a modern-day '60s-obsessed dreamer who longs to become a big-time fashion designer. Her mother is deceased, and she lives with her grandmother in Cornwall, a country town in the English countryside. She follows her passion and heads to fashion school in London, where she's teased and cast aside by the posh, rich, callous city kids.
She moves out of the dorms and rents a bedroom apartment from Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg, who died after production was complete and to whom the film is dedicated), an elderly landlady who lives in the building and only asks that Ellie keep the noise down at night and not bring home any boys. Ellie complies. When she goes to bed at night, the red and blue neon lights from the French bistro next door blinking in her bedroom, she dreams of the London of yesteryear, and lives through the life of Sandie ("The Queen's Gambit's" Anya Taylor-Joy), a budding lounge singer who longs to make it big and become rich and famous.
Ellie and Sandie are the same but different, and Wright, directing his second film of the year (following the excellent "The Sparks Brothers" documentary), loves showing the two of them posed opposite each other in the reflections of mirrors. As Ellie becomes more invested in Sandie's journey, her dreamlife takes over, and she dyes her hair blonde like her nighttime counterpart. Meanwhile her schooling and work life — she picks up a job tending bar at a local pub — suffers, and she finds herself trailed by a mysterious figure (Terence Stamp, resembling the scary old guy from the "Poltergeist" movies) who may be a link to her past.
McKenzie and Taylor-Joy, two of their generation's most promising actresses, make a very intriguing pair, and the yin and yang of their story suggest a time-separated twist on "Mulholland Drive." Things are humming along but once Wright, who co-wrote the screenplay with Krysty Wilson-Cairns ("1917"), takes a hard left into the horror realm, he presents a tepid mystery that, unfortunately, needs to be solved.
That mystery and its resolution deadens the film's momentum and winds up coming to an unsatisfying conclusion, and all the promise from the beginning of the film — of a young girl finding her way in the big city, escaping into her dreams and finding the resilience to bring her real world dreams to life — is squandered in service of a flat whodunnit story.
Wright manages to bring spirited life to retro chapters to the story, packing vivid period detail into his renderings of old London (an vintage movie marquee outfitted with a "Thunderball" mural is flat-out gorgeous) and packing the soundtrack with bouncy, bubbly hits by James Ray, Sandie Shaw and Barry Ryan. (Wright has always had a great ear for pop songs.)
But the story he's servicing reinforces tired tropes about women and the Big City, the dangers lurking around every corner and daydreams not living up to real life expectations. Early on in his career, Wright showed he could mix horror and comedy with the zombie spoof "Shaun of the Dead," but working in straightforward horror proves a tricky proposition, and its rhythms escape him. "Last Night in Soho" is, in a sense, about dashed dreams, and perhaps fittingly, it has trouble making good on its own ambitions. It has one eye on the present and one on the past, and between them it can't keep its focus.
'Last Night in Soho'
Rated R: for bloody violence, sexual content, language, brief drug material and brief graphic nudity
Running time: 116 minutes