Nostalgia for Swinging London Haunts Last Night in Soho
British filmmaker Edgar Wright’s knack for mixing and matching subgenres finally leads him off the deep end — and into incoherence — with Last Night in Soho.
The latest Edgar Wright film, the thriller Last Night in Soho, cost $43 million to make and has earned about $4 million so far. That’s well below expectations, especially considering what a hit his last commercial feature, Baby Driver (2017), was, and how well his Sparks Brothers (2021) did on the arthouse documentary circuit. If you also consider his beloved trilogy comprised of Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), and The World’s End (2013), it seems as if Wright’s had a pretty charmed directorial career as far as popularity, other than Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) — and now Last Night in Soho.
But he can’t say he didn’t ask for this flop. After a scintillating opening, Last Night in Soho goes into a hysterical tailspin that leaves you wondering what exactly Wright’s trying to do. Mixing genres is all very well, but there needs to be some clarity. If he wants to make a horror film, he has to make it clearer that that’s what he’s actually doing. If he wants to make a musical — and he seems to be headed that way since Baby Driver — he needs to commit himself. And if he wants to make an all-out, lurid, mind-blowing melodrama, he’s in the wrong era altogether, and he needs to time travel back to the 1950s, which is even earlier that the 1966 “Swinging London” period when Soho is partially set.
It’s too bad, really. There’s a lot of great talent in this film. Anya Taylor-Joy — playing Sandy, the ghostly knockout London chick in fabulous mid-1960s minidress and white vinyl raincoat who haunts shy, maladjusted present-day fashion student Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) — continues to demonstrate her startling charisma. Among other things, she’s played the lead role in The Witch (2015), the title character in Jane Austen’s Emma. (2020), and the emotionally damaged chess prodigy in the hit miniseries The Queen’s Gambit (2020). Next up, she’ll play the lead in Furiosa, the prequel to Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).
A constellation of fab 1960s English film and television talent is represented in Last Night in Soho. There’s the marvelous Diana Rigg, our lady of The Avengers, though you might know her better from Game of Thrones, in her last role before her death in 2020. Here she’s playing a jaded, crusty old landlady who rents the haunted bed-sit to Eloise. Rita Tushingham (A Taste of Honey, The Knack . . . and How to Get It) plays Eloise’s grandmother. And best of all, there’s Terence Stamp (Billy Budd, Far from the Madding Crowd) as a sinister Soho barfly. Stamp is still so powerful a film presence that the first shot of him is almost gasp-inducing. After his tremendous performance in The Limey (1999), when he really showed what he could do even as an old man, why wasn’t he starring in everything?
Again, I should underscore that the movie starts well, with delightful stylish flair. In an almost style-free era like this one, that’s saying a lot. It opens on a gorgeous long shot of Eloise framed in a distant doorway that is a rectangle of light against black, wearing a paper version of one of her own elegant ’60s-inspired designs and holding dancer’s pose while performing the Peter and Gordon hit “A World Without Love.” The same bold shot is re-created later with Sandy posed in the doorway. There are dazzling uses of music and movement in this film, especially in the early scenes, with ballet-trained Anya Taylor-Joy a mesmerizing figure when performing to music, both as singer and dancer. She does her own vocals for a dark, downtempo, a cappella version of the great Petula Clark anthem of city life, “Downtown,” that’s amazingly effective. Somebody get this wunderkind into a musical!
But disconcertingly, there’s an old-fashioned naivete to the plotting, the characterization, and the dialogue that makes the whole film, even the contemporary parts, seem to belong to an earlier era. Characters like Eloise’s grandmother, or her lone friend and would-be suitor John (Michael Ajao), seem to exist just to strike the same note over and over, there to offer unvarying support and reassurance to Eloise as she gets more and more bonkers, to the point that moments apparently intended to be serious become comical. As the film spins out of control — and not in a good way — the urgent question becomes, “What are you doing, Edgar Wright?”
In interviews, Wright acknowledges his own Eloise-like investment in the “Swinging London” music of the 1960s, since his childhood obsession with his parents’ records collection: “This film is sort of about having nostalgia for a decade you never lived in.”
Not “sort of” — it’s literally about that. The character Eloise cherishes her troubled late mother’s 1960s record collection and lives most fully in her dreams of Swinging London. She leaves rural Cornwall for fashion design school in London, where she’s shunned as a total misfit, and quickly abandons the dorms for a Soho bedsit that turns out to be haunted. Since, as characters in the film repeatedly caution her, “London can be a lot,” this move involves big-city excitement and danger both.
Though now gentrified, Soho is a place where, as Wright puts it, “artists and . . . the underworld kind of mingle” over the generations. And Wright also believes, to a certain extent, in ghosts: “If not in the kind of the traditional sense of ghosts being souls left on Earth in torment — I do believe [in] . . . the idea of some kind of psychic residue left behind by an event.”
Wright has long been involved with creatively rebooting genre films, sometimes mixing internationally popular film genres and genres very specific to his home country, England, or at least the British Isles — Hot Fuzz hilariously combines the ultraviolent American-based action film with the gentle, rural mysteries of Agatha Christie, all spiked with British folk horror à la The Wicker Man.
For Last Night in Soho, Wright was working from a highly London-specific 1960s film subgenre of mainly “sensationalistic and moralistic” B movies. As Wright defines it,
That genre of, like, “girl comes to London to be a star and has the audacity to want to make it big and will be roundly punished for her efforts!” And at that point, it’s almost like the city becomes the villain. It’s like London is there to chew you up and spit you out. . . . The majority of them are written by men and directed by men, and you start to get this sense that those films were the old guard slapping the wrist of the younger generation, so it was like a rebuke to the progressive movement.
Wright claims he set out to subvert the subgenre by having a contemporary young woman vicariously experience the plight of the 1960s London starlet, while avoiding the same fate herself. But I have some unfortunate news for Edgar Wright: he doesn’t subvert it, he re-creates it. Tacked-on happy endings don’t count. But I can’t say more than that because spoilers.
It’s a shame that a film with such initial promise goes off the rails so catastrophically. You can feel it happening about a third of the way in, and you might find yourself making a strenuous effort to steer it back mentally. But in the end, the whole thing goes up in an awful conflagration, both literally and figuratively.
Points for ambition, Edgar Wright, but you can’t win ‘em all.