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At a Q&A session following his 2013 film The World’s End, Edgar Wright described how he would set up jokes in reverse to preserve the longevity of his films. If gag set-ups are at the end of a film, as opposed to the beginning, he figures fans will only catch all the references by watching multiple times. It’s a clever idea that’s helped ensure his status as a beloved genre filmmaker. Last Night in Soho, his latest film, makes no attempt at such longevity. The narrative is straightforward, and the psychedelic imagery loses its cumulative effect through a plodding middle section. By dragging out a story with flimsy characters and a flimsier message, his riff on pulp Giallo thrillers from the sixties and seventies lack the bad taste that made them so celebrated.
Wright wastes no time making us nostalgic for the swinging London of the 1960s. Over retro pop music, Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) dances around her bedroom and dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Like Owen Wilson’s character in Midnight in Paris, she is a modern character looking backward with rose-colored glasses—her designs riff on the mod look that was so popular from the era she adores.
Ellie is in for a rude awakening when she leaves her country home for fashion school in London. It is seedier than she imagined, and her mean girl roommate is hardly welcoming. After a disastrous first night, Ellie finds a spare room that’s owned by Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg). Though doe-eyed and innocent, at least Ellie has the wherewithal to recognize a bad situation. This cocktail of assertiveness and vulnerability makes it easy to care about her.
Strange things start to happen only after Ellie goes to bed in her new flat. She has a vivid dream where she finds herself transported back to the London of the ’60s, where she’s occupied the body of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), an aspiring singer. Wright’s special effectives are subtle and evocative: He uses mirrors in London’s nightclubs to put Ellie in Sandie’s body, and vice versa. Dreams can be like that, a mix of observing and participating, though they are rarely this intense. Ellie becomes hooked. She goes to bed every night just to see what happens next. After making a good first impression on alleged talent scout Jack (Matt Smith), Sandie believes she has a regular singing gig. Her fantasy soon devolves into a nightmare—Jack is a pimp, not a promoter—and all that horrific imagery infects Ellie’s waking life. She worries she’s losing her mind.
Wright and co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns are not coy about what befall Sandie and Ellie. They depict the modern university as a nihilistic popularity contest—only the kindhearted John (Michael Ajao) offers Ellie any reprieve, while Sandie’s descent into the London’s underworld approaches Requiem for a Dream territory. After countless slacker heroes, this should be a welcome change of pace for Wright, who has never had a woman protagonist, let alone two. Unfortunately, he flubs it. Wright jettisons Ellie’s assertiveness right when she needs it most. Vivid hallucinations would be disturbing for anyone, let alone ones that involve faceless men who want nothing more than to grope her, but their effect starts to wane. Last Night in Soho’s protracted middle, where Ellie desperately clings to her sanity, includes two too many riffs of the same psychological horror. Wright tries to mix it up by depicting brutal murders—the blood is the same candy-colored hue from Suspiria —although the slow approach to the killer’s identity means it ultimately lands without much urgency.
For a while, McKenzie and Taylor-Joy’s combined performances lead to intriguing, complementary ideas. Ellie is relatively mousy, a “plucky” archetype that others pity and prey on through pure instinct. Sandie is more outwardly confident, the other end of women stereotypes, with seductive eyes that ultimately invite the “wrong kind” of attention. Wright deepens their connection through shrewd editing and costume choices—after a couple nights with Sandie, Ellie gets herself Sandie’s platinum blonde—although their differences do not quite click into focus over the film’s conclusion. Wright finds more credibility in the veteran performers: Aside from the aforementioned Rigg, who has all the best lines, Terence Stamp plays an aging barfly clearly hiding something. There are some surprises as we learn the true nature of these old-timers, though shrewd viewers will figure it out simply because there are few important characters.
Last Night in Soho falls into a trap that Wright has mostly avoided. He mistakes a longer runtime with serious aspirations, when there could be a 90-minute version of this film that would be more ruthlessly entertaining (i.e. bloodier and scarier), without sacrificing his attempt at depth. The film succeeds at riffing on the innocent young woman archetype as a means to critique the sexism of the ’60s and present day. For the women Ellie and Sandie represent, not much has changed, a fact that the tedious weaving of time periods—which grows more tedious—makes abundantly clear. By the time Ellie fully reckons with the past, in a heady climax that mixes mild gore and psychological terror, she has eroded our patience enough that her hard-earned wisdom is no relief. Repetition is only clever when we see it in new ways, and a genre-blending filmmaker like Wright used to understand that.
Last Night in Soho opens in area theaters on October 29.