Last Night in Soho represents a lot of firsts for the genre-hopping English writer-director Edgar Wright. It’s his first film to focus on two female protagonists, rather than his customary pack of lads; his first straight-up horror movie, without the comedic framing that turned Shaun of the Dead into a cult classic; and his first time exploring the queasy pleasures of giallo, the low-budget, high-impact Italian exploitation films of the 1960s and ’70s. That over-the-top style, with its pulsating colors and generous sloshings of bright-red fake blood, is well-suited to this movie’s story, which folds crime, sex work, mental illness, and elements of the supernatural into a psychological thriller that, at its best, can be mind-bendingly intense.
When it’s not at its best, principally in the last act, Last Night in Soho strains to do too much at once. The script, cowritten by Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, sometimes reaches for unexpected plot swerves or feminist bona fides at the expense of making sense. But it’s exciting to see the 47-year-old Wright follow up his biggest hit (and, in my opinion, worst movie) Baby Driver by trying his hand at new things, rather than serving up the sequel that fans of that movie have been clamoring for since 2017. (Wright has already explored a new genre once this year when he released his first nonfiction film, The Sparks Brothers, a refreshingly playful music documentary.)
Last Night in Soho begins with a private lip-synching performance: Trying on a dress of her own design, Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) puts on a ’60s pop record and mouths the lyrics word for word in her bedroom mirror. Such outbursts of creative freedom, for the shy and self-conscious Eloise, happen only in private. An aspiring fashion designer from rural Cornwall, where she was raised by her grandmother (Rita Tushingham, a fixture of the 1960s English film scene), the twentysomething Eloise inhabits a precarious emotional space. She still sees the ghost of her long-dead mother in the mirror sometimes—a comforting sight, compared to what will await her on the other side of the looking glass once she gets a scholarship to study fashion design in London.
[Read: How Scary Is Last Night in Soho?]
After her roommate Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen) proves to be a Mean Girls-worthy underminer, Eloise moves into a place of her own, a dingy bedsit seemingly not updated since the 1960s—the exact decade with which Eloise has long been obsessed. Her landlady, Mrs. Collins (the late Dame Diana Rigg in her last performance), shares her new tenant’s nostalgia for the swinging London era and regales her with stories of what the city was like in her long-ago youth. But when Eloise falls asleep at night, she is visited by dreams that reveal a darker side of the city’s history, and her own.
In the interest of preserving the surprise of this movie’s dizzying first-act twists, I’ll say only that in Eloise’s dream world, she has a doppelganger, the gorgeous and effortlessly cool Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy of The Queen’s Gambit), who arrives in London in the mid-’60s with the dream of becoming a singer. Instead, she is sucked into the sordid underworld by a handsome young man, Jack (Matt Smith), who promises to introduce her to powerful nightclub impresarios and instead turns himself into her de facto pimp. Each night, as Eloise time-travels to this world in her dreams, the problems that her glamorous double faces become realer and more intractable. They also start to invade the dreamer’s waking life: Eloise dyes her hair blond, tries unsuccessfully to drop Sandie’s hip slang into conversation with her classmates, and finds her waking hours increasingly hard to distinguish from the nightmare dreamscape she inhabits the moment she closes her eyes.
Most of the movie’s tour-de-force moments come in this middle chapter, as the mousy Eloise, clad in pajamas and invisible except in Sandie’s mirror reflection, accompanies her on her ever more dangerous adventures. A dazzling 360-degree shot shows both women dancing with the initially charming Jack, one morphing into the other each time they enter and exit the frame. Another shot, of Sandie descending a mirrored staircase, has her reflection breaking up into a series of reflected Eloises—a formally beautiful image that also illustrates the fracturing of identity Eloise is experiencing as she loses herself in fantasy (or is it a horrifying alternate reality?).
Wright has long set himself apart among directors of his generation by the evident joy he takes in telling stories (and often jokes) through the movement and placement of the camera. The director of photography here, working with Wright for the first time, is the virtuosic Chung Chung-hoon, best known for his collaborations with the Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook. Last Night in Soho isn’t a pastiche of any one cinematic style, but in addition to the debt it owes to giallo classics like Suspiria or Blood and Black Lace, it couldn’t exist without Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, another psychological comedy-thriller in which an innocent outsider gets caught up in the secret nocturnal life of a great world city.
Wright’s love for London, a city he, like this movie’s heroine, moved to from a small town in Southwest England in his 20s, is palpable in the luscious set design. The film was shot on location, with whole city blocks dressed to look like they did fifty-plus years ago, and the ancient city’s nooks and crannies—grotty pubs, tiny shops, narrow alleyways seemingly designed for foot chases—provide an appropriately spooky backdrop. The costumes, designed by Odile Dicks-Mireaux, play an especially important role in the story, given the setting at a fashion school. Two garments in particular—Sandie’s salmon-pink chiffon babydoll dress and a white vinyl raincoat Eloise buys in an attempt to resemble her ultra-mod double—accomplish the dual goal of elucidating character through clothing choices and making the covetous viewer dream of a Last Night in Soho pop-up shop.
There are those who will find the last 20 minutes of Last Night in Soho exploitative, ugly, and crude. The sense of sexual menace and impending bloodshed that has hung over the movie up to that point gives way to an explosion of violence, imagined and real and somewhere in between. The plot twists that are revealed as this gory action unfolds are not as satisfying as a viewer might wish for, after all the suspense equity she has been asked to invest. And in an unusual reversal of normal onscreen gender politics, two of the movie’s key male characters—an earnest fashion student played by Attack the Block’s Michael Ajao and a sinister loiterer played by ’60s matinee idol Terence Stamp—seem like ciphers, inserted in the plot only to further the stories of the two young women. Still, there are worse things a male director at mid-career could do than make a movie about women (and co-written by one) for the first time while also experimenting with themes, styles, and subject matter that are entirely new for him. Not every choice he makes in Last Night in Soho lands with the rightness of, say, virtually every joke in Wright’s brilliant 2007 cozy-mystery spoof Hot Fuzz. But the artists most worth paying attention to are those who leave their early successes behind and seek out new modes of expression—a rejection of nostalgia that, for all of this movie’s affectionate homages and vintage needle drops, is precisely what Last Night in Soho is all about.