Last Night in Soho tells parallel tales about two women arriving in London with wide eyes and open hearts. In present day, Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) travels from her little rural town to attend fashion school, with visions of bringing back the fashions of an era decades before her birth. She idealizes London in the 1960s, which she imagines to have been the “center of the world.” In 1965, Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy) confidently strides into a club looking for work as a singer and dancer — and connects with Jack (Matt Smith), who assures her he can make all her fantasies come true. Of course, Jack is not as friendly as he first seems. On her first night in a new apartment, Ellie finds herself dreaming into Sandy’s life. Each night she revisits her literal dream girl, only to realize that Sandy’s life was not what she expected it to be … and that she may actually be witnessing an unsolved murder.
Director Edgar Wright has made a career for himself repackaging favored genres into contemporary stories. His Cornetto Trilogy parodied zombies (Shaun of the Dead), cops (Hot Fuzz) and alien invasions (The World’s End). Baby Driver took on 1970s wheelman pictures. Soho is inspired by Italian giallo films — murder-mysteries with a psychological horror bent that were popular in the mid-to-late 1960s. It features the hallmarks: a young heroine, a gruesome murder and a mysterious killer who isn’t revealed until the last act. Like many of the most popular giallo pictures (although certainly not all of them), Soho is filled with vivid primary colors and gorgeous, often subtly erotic visuals. It takes its time telling its story, building tension as Ellie tries to figure out what happened to Sandy, and whether the mysterious man who frequents her pub in present-day (Terrence Stamp) is actually an older version of Jack, having gotten away with the most heinous of crimes.
As far as his reconstruction of 1965 London, portions of Soho rival Once Upon a Time in Hollywood … in obsessive fidelity. It’s clear Wright was focused on making sure Sandy’s segments of the story felt authentic. Their cleanliness and beauty convey Ellie’s nostalgia for what the times must have looked like. When Sandy’s life deteriorates, so does the film’s depiction of the ’60s.
Unfortunately, the story told by Wright and his co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917) with the tools at their disposal flounders when it reaches its third act. The nightly communion between Ellie and Sandy is fascinating while it lasts, but it devolves into a fairly rote depiction of the dark side of the sexual revolution. Horror elements take the form of faceless ghosts that haunt Ellie, whose nature I won’t reveal here except to say the reveal surrounding them is deeply, deeply dissatisfying. Although it’s not uncommon for murder mysteries to end in disappointing final reveals, Soho’s big twist manages to sully the interesting thematic ideas at play between Ellie and Sandy. I’m averse to sharing spoilers in my reviews, but it feels like Soho is building up to something heartfelt and insightful before settling for the most shallow possible version of its story.
It’s not like the 1960s haven’t been well-trodden for tales about women realizing their supposed freedom in the era wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. In many ways, this reminded me of Anna Miller’s Viva, but despite my qualms with that film, at least Miller had something to say.
As a fan of Wright’s (I’ve liked all his other films), Soho is a major disappointment. His signature style — fast, detailed and kinetic — is on display and, in certain sequences, has never been better. My favorite is a dream-dance between Jack and Sandy / Ellie that just explodes with action artistry. But this is a case where the climax just breaks everything that came before it, leaving the audience to wonder “OK, uh, how did we end up here?” as the credits roll.