Edgar Wright has always been a filmmaker who’s happy to play around with genres, sometimes even switching between them on a dime multiple times in the same movie, but ‘socially conscious giallo horror’ seems, on paper, a bit much even for him. Sadly, that’s exactly what it proves to be in practice too, with Last Night in Soho ending up as one of 2021’s most severe disappointments, a clanging mess of a movie that feels less like the Edgar Wright of Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz and more like a particularly adult yet daft Doctor Who episode.
Though the end product wastes the potential, the premise of Last Night in Soho is undeniably enticing. Sheltered teenager Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) moves from Cornwall to London to go to fashion college, where she finds that, when she falls asleep, she’s transported back to ‘60s Soho, mysteriously tied to the actions of ambitious and beautiful singer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). The first of these trips is easily Last Night in Soho’s strongest section – you get the impression this was the sequence Wright first imagined when coming up with the movie. The energy is electric, and the in-camera tricks that transport Eloise and then have her and Sandie swap places through strategic mirror placements are phenomenal.
From there, though, it’s a case of diminishing returns, as Sandie’s story takes a darker turn at the hands of snarling pimp Jack (Matt Smith), forcefully exposing Eloise to Soho’s grisly underbelly while ghosts from the ‘60s start to follow her out of her dreams and into the present. The horror aspects are neither scary nor fun enough, and there’s a weird lack of the kinetic verve that has previously defined Wright’s style. It also takes far too long to determine what’s in Eloise’s head (she has a family history of schizophrenia) and what’s real, so the stakes are never clear.
It all culminates in a series of absurd, entirely unearned twists and an ending that both disappoints on a purely plot level and in the muddled message it might be trying to send. Without giving anything away, a generous reading of the final moral would call it confused, while an ungenerous reading would call it downright abhorrent, and both would acknowledge the profound stupidity that permeates Wright and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns’s script.
This tonal whiplash is hardly limited to just the ending, Eloise’s trips to the past interspersed with her uni experience that seems ripped straight out of Mean Girls. A clique of nasty girls constantly badger and belittle Eloise in a way that neither rings true nor earns laughs, before the subplot peters out without any sort of satisfying conclusion. Poor performances from pretty much all the young actors playing Eloise’s classmates compounds the problem, and even McKenzie is a bit overmatched by the silly material.
Smith and the talismanic figures of Terence Stamp and the late Diana Rigg fare better but still aren’t given enough to do, so it falls squarely on Taylor-Joy to save the movie, a task that she, to her truly immense credit, almost rises to. She brings a supernova’s worth of star power to her every scene, and Wright’s best work in the film is knowing exactly how to get the most out of this performance, granting Taylor-Joy plenty of showstopping song and dance numbers – the soundtrack reminds a highlight throughout.
Perhaps the saddest thing about Last Night in Soho is that there’s clearly a better film buried in the foundations of what we eventually got. The trailers promised a time-traveling murder mystery, which seemed like a lot of fun, and certainly more appealing than the mish-mash of using broad horror tropes to try to make coherent social points about the ravages of misogyny across time (there’s also an racially uncomfortable undertone to some scenes that really shouldn’t have made it out of the edit). Much like Adam McKay, Wright in recent years seems to have decided that his previous, brilliantly funny, comedic career is now beneath him but, for my money, he can’t return there quickly enough.