Last Night in Soho is Edgar Wright’s Least Comedic Film , Film Companion
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Director: Edgar Wright

Cast: Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, Diana Rigg, Michael Ajao 

Writers: Krysty Wilson-Cairns, Edgar Wright

Cinematographer: Chung-hoon Chung

Editor: Paul Machliss

For women, there is no fear more real than being preyed upon by men. And for Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), in Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, there is no place and time she would like to be more than in London in the Swinging Sixties. One half of that wish is granted when she arrives in the city to study fashion design, a wide-eyed small-town girl with big dreams but equally wary of monsters disguised as men, like the cabbie, who seems friendly at first but turns creepy soon enough. Seen through her eyes, London is a minefield of predatory glances and gestures in Wright’s film. Driven by nostalgia, Eloise is convinced that sixties London was a different place. Perhaps she has not seen Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), in which Catherine Deneuve walked its streets equally paranoid about being molested or raped. This is where Wright grants his protagonist the second half of her wish; through a conceit that forms the main hook of the film, he finds a way to send Eloise to the sixties. An old adage calls to mind: be careful what you wish for.

Triggered by an old photograph of a previous occupant in the flat she moves into, Eloise starts dreaming about a woman called Sandie, an aspiring singer and in gowns and a Brigette Bardot hairstyle, an embodiment of the era herself (Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance is quite physical in that regard, it’s a lot about the way she walks, the way she moves and the way she carries those dresses). It’s almost as if she starts living an alternate life through Sandie, taking part in her adventures with suave impresario Jack (Matt Smith), who promises her a break in the club he works for. 

 

The house’s location next to a French Bistro with a blinking neon signboard means that her room is bathed in lurid, hallucinatory lights that recall giallo films – and an amazing instance of natural lighting (where you show the light source along with the light, to make it more believable). Wright’s film draws more than just that from giallos (Suspiria, Phenomena), often set in a world of high fashion and sometimes based on the premise of a young woman going to an academy to study (McKenzie has the perfect face for it: girlish and unspoilt). Last Night in Soho follows the beats of a horror film but it does well to keep itself under wraps for some time. It seduces us with the glamour and the heady energy of the era, and then goes on to expose its dirty secrets. Nostalgia is seductive, Wright seems to suggest, but to succumb to its charms without interrogation is not only naive but dangerous as well. The film’s form emulates this as the tension between the two timelines increase: Eloise begins to find out what happened to Sandie.

 

In a horror film of this sort, it would be Sandie’s spirit guiding Eloise. But what if Sandie didn’t die, her spirit did? Ever the cinephile director, and horror fan, Wright gives us a twisted version of genre conventions. A wild final reveal recasts the film in a new light, but it takes a while to get there. One of the problems is that we are never that emotionally invested in Sandie’s story, as much as we are immersed in Eloise’s realities and reveries. The framing device becomes an issue; Wright keeps us on the outside and makes us look at her from a distance. The phenomena doesn’t entirely make sense either, its workings are never made clear – when we are in Sandie’s story, Eloise alternately disappears and pops up as her mirror image; when she tries to reach out to her, the mirror cracks. A sense of sisterhood and female solidarity binds them, as they bind all the female characters in Last Night in Soho; most of the men disappoint, including a cop who listens to Eloise’s nutty theory with sincerity but then is overheard making fun of it to a male colleague in the restroom. (Her bitchy roommate, who prompts her to find a new place, and the nice guy she starts seeing are the exceptions to the rule).    

Co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns, this is a departure from the usually male-driven cast in Wright’s work – a commendable effort to venture out of a comfort zone – but it also seems to be missing a sense of play that animated those films, particularly the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy. Last Night in Soho is the only other film in Wright’s oeuvre to be set in his native Britain (Baby Driver was set in Atlanta, and Scott Pilgrim vs the World in Toronto), and yet it lacks the kind of levity and local colour of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End. The crucial difference, apart from telling the story from the perspective of women, is that it’s the least comedic of all his films – not that it projected itself as one, but Wright is so good with it that you wonder if that’s made a difference. (Neither is it scary). What it retains, though, is his ability to be able to critique something he can also be affectionate about.

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