When someone says, “I was born in the wrong era,” it usually means two things: they’re easily charmed by aesthetics, and they don’t contemplate historical social issues too deeply. Both statements apply to Ellie, the protagonist of Edgar Wright’s Venice-premiering Last Night in Soho. But they also apply to the director himself, who delivers a beautifully stylized portrait of 1960s London that seeks to deconstruct the glamorization of the past while failing to deliver its own strong commentary on the issues of the times.
In his favor is that Wright is a director who clearly has fun playing with genre, as evidenced by his breakthrough zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead, the hipster musical Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and the more recent action-romance Baby Driver. In his latest film, he collides time travel with giallo to tell the story of Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie), a timid present-day fashion student, and Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy), a bold aspiring diva in late ‘60s Soho. Ellie has just moved from rural Cornwall to London to enroll in fashion school, but with her homemade clothes and introverted personality, she doesn’t quite fit in with her peers. She decides to move out of the student residences and take an old-fashioned room in a house in Goodge Street, hosted by the stern but nostalgic Miss Collins (Diana Rigg in her final performance). What she doesn’t know is that the room used to belong to Sandy, whose presence still haunts it. Every night when Ellie goes to sleep, she steps into the blonde singer’s memories — sometimes shadowing her, sometimes becoming her — and relives the decade she loves through another’s eyes. But history isn’t all appearances, and as Ellie grows closer and closer to Sandy, she grows closer to seeing the truth of what happened to her.
As introduced by her recurring visions of her dead mother, Ellie is an unreliable narrator. Putting the audience into her head — making us see what she sees — is key to the psychological thriller aspect of the film. To this end, Wright goes for maximalism to charm his audience with Sandy and her world. Styled with an iconic Brigitte Bardot bouffant and pink A-line dress, Taylor-Joy is all beauty and ambition, sipping vespers and flirting her way into a career with talent manager Jack (Matt Smith). She’s the kind of woman that every shy girl envies and soon, Ellie is dyeing her hair blonde and buying a white patent leather jacket to replicate the look.
Sandy’s world is rounded out with glamorous production design by Marcus Rowland and costumes by Odile Dicks-Mireaux, while Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography switches her in and out with Ellie through a sleek series of mirror tricks and transitions. Wright keeps the energy high, dazzling the audience with a spectacle of colored lights, quick editing, music by the likes of Dusty Springfield, Cilla Black, and Sandie Shaw, and names like the Café de Paris and the Rialto Revue Theater.
But Sandy’s apparent rise to stardom is too smooth, and the audience can feel the dream beginning to crack into a nightmare. The surface stays the same, but the meaning changes: Jack slides from manager to pimp, the Rialto from theater to showroom, the audience from spectator to client, and the star from Sandy to Alexandra to Lexie to Alexa, depending on the night. The girl Ellie wants to be doesn’t want to be herself anymore.
This turn was expected, even anxiously awaited. It’s easy to be Sandy when everything is going well, but who is she when things fall apart? Ellie is never able to touch her or talk to her, even in a heartbreaking scene that features Ellie shattering through a mirror in a bar to hug Sandy, only for the dream to abruptly end. Wright chose to make a film about women and gender exploitation, and so we want to see Sandy’s struggle and Ellie’s empathy; we want to see how Wright uses these dual timelines to dig in on the #MeToo movement, the casting couch, objectification, and women’s solidarity in the face of all this.
What he delivers instead is an army of suited, faceless specters who are so insistent as to become more annoying than frightening; a creepy old man who may or may not be a figure from the past; and a love interest whose innocuous presence leaves the audience neither hot nor cold. In summary, the second we get close enough to Sandy to see a three-dimensional portrait come into view, Wright pulls her away and turns our attention to the men of the story instead. The relationship between these two women is left at the wayside as Ellie runs around London, growing increasingly paranoid as she tries to get to the bottom of her visions of blood and knives.
Not that some good jump scares, slasher sequences, and mistaken identities don’t have their place, and Wright does keep the audience guessing up until the end. But it’s halfway through that Wright’s fascination with style trumps his sensibility for the themes he’s introduced. The shadowy men pursuing Ellie are a powerful visualization of the constant threat women feel out in society, yet Wright takes the meaning in another direction that strikes the wrong note. He does the same with Sandy, whose fate as a character is entirely a reaction to what’s happened to her rather than an independent action stemming from her inner strength or thought process.
That being said, Last Night in Soho is a spectacle, the kind of movie that is genuinely fun to see in theaters. Wright plays off the themes of the times more for flavor than otherwise but does so with the style and music of the ‘60s as well. It’s inspiring to see a director have so much fun with the subject matter he’s chosen, using all the tools cinema provides to create the kind of moments that could never happen in real life. But it does leave the lingering question: is it really so hard for a male director to tell a story about women?