If there’s a vital life-lesson to take away from Edgar Wright’s (the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Spaced) latest film, Last Night in Soho, it’s a simple, if occasionally ignored one: Always look both ways before, not after, you cross the street. Ever sly and ever playful, Wright draws on our collective, natural fear of hit-and-run, car-on-body collisions (cars generally escape unscathed, we don’t), repeatedly showing one or several characters blithely, nonchalantly walking or running into traffic. To paraphrase oft-quoted Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov, you don’t introduce fast-moving vehicles of mass destruction in the first act without dipping into said sense of foreshadowing and foreboding in the second or third act.
Whether Wright does or doesn’t fulfill universal admonition in Last Night in Soho is less important than how something as simple and straightforward, repeated without conscious comment or notice, can contribute to the impending sense of existential dread that threatens to swallow whole Wright’s protagonist, Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie, Jojo Rabbit, Leave No Trace), a naive, fresh-faced, first-year fashion student at an art and design school in a near-mythical London, the same city where her late mother also tried to make a go of her dreams several decades earlier, only to return to Eloise’s native Cornwall in vague, ambiguous defeat, and die by her own hand several years after giving birth to her daughter.
Eloise represents a not atypical clash between the presumed sophistication of the big city and the lesser sophisticated rural countryside. Primarily raised by her grandmother, Peggy (Rita Tushingham), Eloise simultaneously lives in the present (Cornwall first, London second), the future (the dream of becoming a successful fashion designer), and the past (the ‘60s-era records, magazines, and posters that litter her bedroom in Cornwall when we first meet her). Soon enough, Eloise has more to celebrate than a dress made out of newspapers or dancing exuberantly to the strains of Peter & Gordon’s 1964 hit, “A World Without Love,” on vinyl: She gets the acceptance letter to the fashion and design school that will legitimately change her life.
Even as Eloise’s buoyant mood carries her through the first few days of dorm and school life, all is increasingly not well, from the leering, predatory taxi driver who practically screams “Stranger Danger!” before he drops off at the dorm, to the snobbish, full-of-herself roommate, Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen), and a feral troupe of mean girls including Lara (Jessie Mei Li), Cami (Kassius Nelson), and Ashley (Rebecca Harrod), that turn on the shy, introspective Eloise almost immediately. Only a fellow fashion student, John (Michael Ajao), the proverbial “nice guy” who might be too good to be true, offers the dimmest ray of hope that Eloise will survive her first year in London.
Everything changes, of course, when Eloise, bummed and frustrated at her dorm situation, decides to take a room off-campus with an elderly woman, Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg), who seems to have kept her home practically unchanged for the better part of a half-century. Moments after settling into her new room, Eloise slips into a half-dream, half-reverie that metaphysically and literally transports her to ’60s London and a young blonde woman, Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Queen’s Gambit, The Witch), who seems to mirror Eloise’s ambitions for a better, more fulfilling life in London. Sandie dreams of becoming a successful singer like her near contemporary, Cilla Black (Beth Singh). Supremely confident in herself and her abilities, Sandie immediately charms Jack (Matt Smith), a slickster with combed-back hair, an easy smile, and an irresistible pitch: He’ll make Sandie a star.
Dreams can easily turn to nightmares and as Eloise, sometimes an observer in Sandie’s unfolding life, sometimes a participant, learns that hard lesson, her already fragile psyche begins to teeter and eventually disintegrate, leading to present-day difficulties, and deep-seated concern from John, her grandmother, and her teachers. While Eloise can’t change Sandie’s life (the past remains immutable), a mystery (what happened to Sandie) becomes the central focal point for Eloise’s present-day life. It’s here, in Eloise’s not-so-gradual descent into mental illness that Last Night in Soho stumbles slightly, less because Eloise’s descent (or rather how and when that descent happens) stretches credulity and more because Wright leans a little too hard on rehashed horror tropes and obvious red herrings that slow whatever momentum Last Night in Soho gained in the previous hour to a crawl.
Eloise’s romanticized, idealized view of the so-called Swinging ’60s and the inevitable disappointment that follows when she discovers some ugly truths about the mistreatment and abuse of women in that era gives Last Night in Soho its central theme: Unfettered, unquestioned nostalgia can be unequal parts liberating, comforting, and ultimately, suffocating. As with all things, Wright seems to suggest, balance is key. He would, since Wright is nothing if not a writer-director obsessed with the past, quoting, referencing, and otherwise paying homage to his favorite films and filmmakers even as he uses modern technology to dazzle audiences with his seemingly effortless, brilliant use of various and sundry film techniques.
And dazzle Wright does, whether through the usual mix of expertly placed needle drops, rapid-fire editing, and sinuous camerawork, or in easily the most jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring sequence in Last Night in Soho, Eloise and Sandie’s first encounter via mirrors and reflections. Even when Last Night in Soho slips into mystery-solving mode or finally, when the mystery, such as it is, gets resolved in somewhat disappointing fashion, Wright’s next-level technical skills are always front-and-center, reminding us why he remains one of the best filmmakers working today.
Last Night in Soho opens in movie theaters on Friday, October 29th.