Ever since his career took off two decades ago, Edgar Wright has remained one of the only directors to completely master the art of making movies fun. Indeed, each of his feature films deliver pure, uproarious enjoyment. And in his newest film, Last Night in Soho, he leans into the magnetic quality that reminds us that this is an Edgar Wright film. From the laugh-out-loud zombie hijinks in Shaun of the Dead that makes it impossible to look away, to the flashy videogame effects that make Scott Pilgrim vs. the World a stimulating, immersive experience, Last Night in Soho combines all the components that make his previous films click to create a uniquely engrossing viewing experience.
Last Night in Soho follows Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), who moves to 2010s London from the English countryside to study fashion. While there, she begins having vivid nighttime visions that transport her back to her neighborhood in the 1960s. Eloise appears in her visions as Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a glamorous aspiring singer who lived in the same apartment as Eloise in the ‘60s. But what starts as a flashy ode to the dazzling nightlife of old Soho quickly spirals into a riveting, pulse-raising murder-mystery.
Last Night in Soho is seductive and lively from its very first moments. It opens on Eloise dancing to Peter & Gordon’s “A World Without Love,” a positively joyful 1960s bop, wearing a dress she made out of newspaper. This is just the film’s first dance sequence, and properly sets the exhilarating tone of the rest of the film. This upbeat energy only picks up when Eloise arrives in London. The streets of Soho are presented through Eloise’s eager, bewitched eyes: The fluorescent signs glow with an extra pop of color; young, attractive people practically dance through the streets; cars whiz by. And when Eloise is transported back to the ‘60s, her enchantment only increases. The entire neighborhood is lit with a radiant golden glow, which puts us so in tune with Eloise’s excitement that when men open doors for her, it feels like they’re opening the doors for us. And this stamina continues throughout the rest of Last Night in Soho. Not a single breath is wasted: From inspired needle-drops like Dusty Springfield’s dreamy “Wishin’ and Hopin’” or Martha Reeves & the Vandellas’ “(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave,” to exquisite dresses and energetic dance scenes.
Of course, Last Night in Soho wouldn’t wield such hypnotic power if it weren’t for its excellent performances. As always, Taylor-Joy seduces the camera with her every expression, but it’s McKenzie’s raw fragility that steals the show. She navigates the strange world of the film with idealistic curiosity, all the while clinging to her penchant for nostalgia. She engages us through the fascination with the world around her that she wears on her face, and makes us feel like we’re maneuvering the old neighborhoods of Soho right beside her.
Visually, this might be Wright’s most intriguing film yet. While all of his films have a distinct visual style—rapid editing, whip-pans, and dolly zooms—Last Night in Soho does something a little different, and pulls from the Italian giallo horror subgenre’s extreme, bright colors and theatrical sets, which gives the films a dreamlike quality. Wright pays homage to the king of giallo himself, Dario Argento, borrowing bold visual elements from his films like Deep Red and Suspiria (the use of knives as mirrors, a fixation on the color red). But he isn’t interested in only riffing on one genre: He also pays tribute to noirs, notably Roman Polanski’s psycho-thriller Repulsion, which also follows a woman who experiences frightening hallucinations rooted in a fear of men.
Given the connection Wright makes both with older films and with his audience, when things get scary for Eloise and her dreams start to turn into blood-soaked nightmares, the moments of horror are that much more effective. Wright makes sure that even when we’re watching people get hacked to death, or faceless men chase our protagonist, we’re having fun while doing it. One notable sequence, for example, sees Eloise racing through the streets of London trying to dodge the zombies chasing her—with ‘60s pop music blaring in the background, because why not?
But Last Night in Soho isn’t just a joyful, stylish romp. It also finds a way to pay homage to giallo and noir filmmaking styles while adding something new. But while Last Night in Soho is generally more dynamic than your average noir, and concentrates more on realism than your average giallo, it still recognizes its predecessors’ emphasis on political and social issues. In her initial, alluring pursuit of a singing career, Sandie inadvertently scratches the surface of old London nightlife, revealing a dark underbelly of crime and exploitation. Pimped out by her so-called talent agent, Jack (Matt Smith), she ends up sleeping with grotesque men for money. Mental health issues are also brought into the spotlight, as Eloise’s visions are clearly increasingly distressing for her, and many people around her simply dismiss her as crazy.
Indeed, Wright has a history of using, at least in part, his slapstick methods and showy colors and sets to satirize and highlight more serious matters. Hot Fuzz lifts the curtain on the nefarious conducts of the corporate elite and The World’s End even does its own micro-dive into the dangers of a technology-obsessed society. To that end, the only area in which Last Night in Soho fails, is, in the third act, when the script takes on too much of an expositional tone, instead of simply relying on its satirical edge to do the talking. As a result, it feels like Wright needlessly adds extra lines and plot points to justify the film’s shocking ending—when it doesn’t need justification at all.
Still, Last Night in Soho culminates as a chic and dynamic expression of Edgar Wright at the height of his powers. Even in the moments of the film that don’t quite work, it’s impossible to forget who the filmmaker is, through his signature humor, seductive framing and camerawork, and agile editing. That singularity makes for an experience I don’t think anyone is immune to.
Director: Edgar Wright
Writer: Edgar Wright, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Thomasin McKenzie, Matt Smith, Terence Stamp, Diana Rigg, Rita Tushingham, Michael Ajao, Synnove Karlsen
Release Date: October 29, 2021
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.