Stylish but shallow Edgar Wright thriller deconstructs 1960s Swinging London
Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be in Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, an ultra-stylish homage to 1960’s Swinging London that doubles as a slasher-film critique of period-apt predatory toxicity. Not for nothing does a Thunderball movie billboard lord over the streets: James Bond was literally the poster boy for testosterone-fueled libidinous behavior. Women were ripe for the picking, and men picked away.
It’s enough to drive you crazy, or at least it is for delicate wallflower Ellie Turner (Thomasin McKenzie). She’s a meek-but-scrappy young fashion student, whose mentally unstable mum killed herself years ago, obsessed with Carnaby Street’s louche mod heyday . And, now that small-town girl Ellie is living in London, she starts to have powerful, palpable dreams that transport her decades back to the West End’s white-hot hedonistic time.
LAST NIGHT IN SOHO★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Edgar Wright
Written by: Edgar Wright, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Starring: Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, Terence Stamp, Michael Ajao, Diana Rigg, Rita Tushingham
Running time: 116 mins
Her avatar is a woman named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). Wright conflates the two in a bravura nightclub sequence where Ellie sees her reflection in mirrors that Sandie passes by. The blonde bombshell, a randy vision in pink chiffon, sashays into the room, confident and voluptuous and seemingly smart enough to hold the wolves at bay. But then she meets Jack (Matt Smith), a suave charmer who whisks her away and eventually down into the lower depths.
Ellie becomes obsessed with Sandie, dying her hair and buying vintage clothes to match, while every vision of Sandie’s sordid past gets more disturbing, dangerous, and eventually fatal. It all makes Ellie increasingly unhinged, as she desperately tries to piece together the violent truth that’s been hidden for years. Will she discover the secrets of these unsolved crimes or let them drive her insane?
Wright’s conflicted adoration for that lost world of randy men and dolled-up dolls creates an odd dissonance. His feminist critique of cultural objectification and exploitation comes wrapped in a sleek genre thrill-ride built on a chassis of underdeveloped characters and simplistic plot twists. In its own way, with its giallo-inflected horror tropes and va-va-voom ladies in peril, it objectifies and exploits as much as it condemns.
He may conjure mod classics like A Taste of Honey and The Avengers by casting their comely stars Rita Tushingham and Diana Rigg in small but pivotal roles, but he’s not doing justice to that era’s own self-confessed contradictions and complexities. Directors like Tony Richardson were hardly go-go exploiters, nor was Diana Rigg’s famously slinky-but-prickly Emma Peel ever a shrinking violet. Just look at 1966’s Blow-Up for Michelangelo Antonioni’s existentialist take on the Swinging Sixties, still a vibrant, haunting critique of those corrosive excesses. Or—even better—Roman Polanski’s 1965 Repulsion for a devastating portrait of female objectification and male desire in merry old London that ignites a feverish descent into madness.
Last Night in Soho excels in Wright’s well-established talents as an exhilarating formalist. But in Last Night in Soho, he plays at being a moralist chronicler of trauma that reverberates through time. The high-polish sheen of his richly evocative production, bathed in expressionistic primary colors and captured with delirious camerawork, showcase his talents far better than his heavy-handed portrait of rape-revenge tragedies in a nubile netherworld.