Over the course of his entire career, Edgar Wright has been interested in exploring ideas surrounding nostalgia, clinging onto the past and dealing with changing life circumstances, all hidden within hyper-stylized genre experiments functioning as nostalgic love letters to movies Wright grew up watching. Admittedly, this idea of wrapping nostalgia around nostalgia is what gave Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and – quite frankly – nearly all of his movies their particular charm and convinced the audiences not only to let themselves be taken onto these wild adventures, but also perhaps tickled their own nostalgic glands. After all, we all know someone who failed to grow up, maybe we can’t part ways with our favourite pub, or maybe we all know what it’s like to come back to our hometown after many years to see how the place changed and how we no longer fit in there despite our memories telling us we should be able to.
Sadly, this is where Last Night in Soho, Wright’s most recent outing, messes with the recipe a tad too much, which – come to think of it – might be quite difficult to articulate without ruining some aspects of the plot. So, consider yourselves warned. In any case, in contrast to Wright’s previous work that deals with characters who are incapable of changing or adapting to the changing circumstances of their lives, Last Night in Soho shifts this perspective a little and in one fell swoop disables the charm his previous movies had in spades. And that’s because the movie deals with the kind of longing that neither the characters in the movie nor the filmmaker himself have a tangible connection to. It’s a movie about nostalgia towards the times before we were born, which is a fair bit more abstract than the idea of not willing to let go of your bachelor lifestyle or the fact you and your friends grew apart over the years. It’s a bit more nuanced than that.
To enable this conversation about longing for the magic of the times gone by, Edgar Wright employs the character of Eloise, Ellie for short, played by Thomasin McKenzie. On the precipice of adulthood, Ellie seems enamoured with the ‘Swinging Sixties’ which is reflected in the clothes she wears and the music she listens to. Granted, her obsession with this era is rooted in something more than just a desire to look cool or quirky, as she has grown to understand that this was the era her late mother – whom she barely knew because she tragically took her life when Ellie was little – felt nostalgic towards. Therefore, it appears that Ellie seeks to establish a relationship with her mum, whose spectre she also sometimes sees in the mirror, by trying to understand what she liked, the music she danced to, the clothes she wore and… the places she had been to.
Hence, when she finds out she is going to move to London to study fashion, Ellie is ecstatic. However, she quickly realizes that there is a stark difference between how our imagination paints an idealized picture of places we wish to visit and what they look like and feel like. I suppose on some level the entire film functions as a conversation on this topic, but whether it does so successfully, or more importantly, whether it does it in an entertaining way is a separate question I’ll get to in a moment. For now, let’s quickly come back to Ellie and the fact London looks nothing like the sun-bleached photographs her mum left behind or the album covers would suggest. It’s grimy, dangerous and wholly unwelcoming, but Ellie proceeds undeterred. It doesn’t even bother her too much that having met her new group of peers she is immediately ostracized and treated as a group weirdo. She simply moves out of the student halls and finds a quiet bedsit in the dingy back alleys of the West End, which is where the story truly begins.
As it turns out, the fact Ellie frequently sees her mother in the mirror might not be a character wrinkle or a clever way to visualize the trajectory of her mental wellbeing; it is entirely possible that Ellie is a clairvoyant sensitized to the lingering spirits of people inhabiting places they lived in. Thus, when she moves into her new accommodation, she starts experiencing visions where she inhabits the body of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) a young woman who lived in her apartment in 1965 (that’s based on Thunderball frequently displayed on marquees in those visions) and tried to make a career as an entertainer and a singer. This serves both as an inciting incident for the film’s main intrigue and an anchoring point for Wright to pay homage to the times he didn’t get the opportunity to experience.
Therefore, the entire film unfolds simultaneously on two parallel planes. First of all, we are sucked into a genre medley within the scope of the primary narrative, as we follow Ellie down the rabbit hole of her visions that slowly encroach on her normal life and follow up on what happened to Sandie after she found out that her career in performing arts was contingent on surrendering to the vile desires of powerful men. Accordingly, Wright turns the story into a canonical Hitchcockian detective story with a supernatural slant and elevates it with the visually ambitious idea of using mirrors to shadow both Sandie and Ellie as each other’s reflections. On top of that, we are also invited to inhabit Wright’s own headspace because – just like Shaun of the Dead was an excuse to tip his hat to George A. Romero and The World’s End was a piece of homage to paranoid thrillers and the likes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers – Last Night in Soho is an opportunity for him to geek out and reference a whole bunch of great movies from the 1960s.
Thus, while Ellie is busy navigating the nightmare of her social life during the day and trying to parse the phantasmagorias of her nightly visions in order to solve what she believes to be a murder mystery, the film wastes no time and morphs into a collage of references at every opportunity. Thus, a keen eye will probably spot a handful of visual cues pointing to Michael Powell’s infamous Peeping Tom or William Wyler’s The Collector. In fact, Terence Stamp himself (who played the sinister girl-snatching psychopath in Wyler’s film) also makes an appearance in the film and becomes one of the many focal points of the primary narrative. But this isn’t all. There are plenty more references hidden within Last Night in Soho, from winking at Dario Argento, to openly acknowledging the famously unfinished Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno and even the iconic dance scene from Fellini’s 8½.
However, in contrast to Wright’s previous efforts, Last Night in Soho lacks something. A spark. For some reason, despite using all the right ingredients in correct amounts, the movie doesn’t feel anywhere near as playful as Edgar Wright’s other movies and I don’t think I can precisely articulate why that is. All I can do is postulate that maybe the narrative itself isn’t strong enough to imbue the film with necessary urgency to sweep the viewer into its universe. Although I am perfectly content with McKenzie and Taylor Joy’s performances, I think I’m slowly resigning myself to think that maybe the primary intrigue of finding out what happened to Sandie, why it happened, what it means for Ellie and perhaps how it fits within the current post-MeToo zeitgeist isn’t enough to conjure Wright’s signature magic. It just feels a bit too conventional for its own good because – again in contrast to quite literally all of Wright’s previous works – Last Night in Soho feels as though it didn’t have an organic connection to the subject matter it was toying with.
While I can feel Wright is personally invested in Shaun of the Dead, both thematically and in the way he feels about the pop culture he is referencing, I can’t say the same about this film. Last Night in Soho plays more as an exercise in style with a competently engineered by-the-numbers detective story embedded within it, rather than something that came of its author’s soul. It’s great to look at and it occasionally wows with the inventive way it incorporates the multitude of colourful references into its genetic code, but that cheeky spark is missing. Just like Ellie’s connection to the 60s is purely superficial and constricted to fashion statements and a penchant for vintage pop culture, so is Edgar Wright’s. While I could believe he has a deep nostalgic connection to Dawn of the Dead or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I don’t think it extends to Peeping Tom and Inferno and this might be what translates to a lack of ineffable chemistry between the filmmaker and the material he is handling. And although it isn’t a mortal sin, I think Wright’s movies require this personal nostalgic connection to be the secret ingredient needed to execute the recipe correctly and truly rock my socks off.
Suffice it to say that my socks remained in post after the credits rolled. While I appreciated the artistry and enjoyed the challenge of embarking on a pop cultural treasure hunt about the 1960s movies, I don’t think Last Night in Soho has the staying power of Edgar Wright’s other movies and will be confined to history as a well put together experiment in style wrapped around a predictable whodunnit and somewhat undermined by a flaccid love story that serves only to distract from the experience.