Things will be great when you’re… downtown.
The stone streets shimmer, rain splashing off the bricks, puddles forming in the old, uneven surface. The neon lights cast a radiant glow onto the mirrorlike surfaces below, a portal to an inverted world where the lights buzz against an eerie reflection. The same clothes, the same bricks, the same walls, the same atmosphere of latent violence, inflected with the echoes of folksy rock music and psychedelia. The mirror world is alluring, the promises of rosy tint and the steady fading of its blemishes, history written by flowery nostalgia and warm upbeat tunes. But reality is much bleaker than the soft crackle of the turntable lets on.
The steel knife shimmers, blood splashing off the cold surface, puddles forming on warm skin. The neon lights cast a sinister glow onto the scattered mirrors, reflecting and refracting the red luminescence across the room. Latent violence realized, a predatory world bearing down on the vulnerable and innocent. They are everywhere, their words hollow and their faces all the same, sneering maliciously as they promise greatness, their self-aggrandizing assurances growing tiresome as they become increasingly repetitious. Their hateful souls woven into the fabric of society, their haunting visages walk the streets in spirit and in culture, carrying on a legacy of danger.
We all long for escape, for a place where the lights shine bright, the music wraps comfortingly, where all your wildest dreams come true and you can blossom into someone free of reservations and anxiety. We long to escape the constricting confines of our hometowns and we long to escape the suffocating chaos of the metropolis, imagining a perfect world where we fit in without a second thought. Last Night in Soho perfectly captures this universal disconnect, the anxious twinge of feeling like an outsider, not quite meshing with your surroundings. The alienation is disquieting, only exacerbated by the arresting atmosphere of lurking danger, women spending their lives on edge looking over their shoulder for the footsteps lingering close behind.
The alluring scent of nostalgia. Spellbound by hazy, dreamlike visions of the past, Thomasin Mackenzie’s Eloise begins her story immediately locked in the dazzling splendor of the 1960s, her small bedroom in Cornwall adorned with retro posters as “A World Without Love” by Peter and Gordon crackles through a small portable turntable. Moving to London with grand aspirations of the glamorous world of fashion design, the rosy fantasy of the big city rapidly dwindles, a palpable atmosphere of danger lurking on the streets and the uncomfortable cruelty of sneering, party-going peers in the classrooms. The realization of just how unforgiving reality can be starts to creep at the extremities before Eloise attempts to shut it all out by spending her nights escaping into the past, viewing her dreamy nostalgic vision of the 60s through the eyes of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), whose perfect hair and immaculate outfits spark an enthusiasm and rejuvenation in Eloise.
The rabbit hole of intoxicating escapism gets increasingly dangerous for Eloise as the hazy visions grow clearer and clearer, ever closer, encroaching and blurring the lines between fiction and reality, and eventually submerging Eloise completely in an ice cold bath of brutal reality. It’s a cutting criticism of our tendency to romanticize the past while simultaneously revealing the omnipresent danger of being a woman that has permeated through time. This is the film at its best, a vicious descent into neon-red bathed, giallo-inflected madness, shot with dazzling brilliance by master cinematographer Jeong Jeong-hun, and edited to flashy perfection by frequent Wright collaborator Paul Machliss.
What Last Night in Soho sets up is exciting and novel, stylish and upbeat, featuring a collection of rocking ’60s tunes and beautiful swaths of vibrant color, but where it takes its well framed setup is where it begins to stumble and fall, its ironclad cohesion slowly falling apart at the seams as its divergent worlds collide and coalesce. Its attempts to subvert expectations work to its own detriment, undermining its anticipated central thesis in favor of something far messier. There’s so much to be said in its blood-soaked depiction of burdening unresolved trauma clawing its way from past to present, but the physical realization of that trauma and its charred resolution lack the necessary weight to cement the film’s themes into a potent and lasting statement. Instead its final minutes are awash with messy implications and confounding contrivances, limping down the runway toward a garish flourish and a lingering sense of incoherence.
It exists in such a perplexing space between its best and its worst moments, between its undeniably intoxicating visions of the past and its half baked finale, between its outstanding performances and its often shaky script. The longer the film coalesces and lingers in the mind the harder it is to place, each overwrought detail burning down its cinematic revelations and each moment of joyous Edgar Wright direction fighting to erase its lasting blemishes. There’s a lot of fun to be had in Last Night in Soho‘s horror inflected mirror world, but for a director who normally leaves a burning desire to revisit along with notes of gleeful cinematic joy, the lasting frustration is considerably more haunting than its final shot attempts to be.