Speaking as an Edgar Wright fanboy who has not only seen every one of his films in the theater (except for Shaun of the Dead, which never played in my hometown of Bumfuck, WV) but also loved his UK TV work going all the way back to Asylum (1996), Is it Bill Baily? (1998, and the classic Spaced (1999-2001). He was also a wonderful living easter egg in the also-classic Look Around You (2002-2005) and his music video for Mint Royale’s “Blue Song” is perfection. So yeah, if Edgar Wright’s name is on it (even as screenwriter for The Adventures of Tintin), I’ll watch it (I’m still hoping for a feature-length version of his Grindhouse fake trailer, Don’t).

That said, The World’s End (2013) is the last Wright film that I’ve enjoyed whole-heartedly, and Hot Fuzz (2007) is still my absolute favorite. This latest phase of his career, beginning with Baby Driver (2017), carrying through with The Sparks Brothers documentary (2021), and now his latest, Last Night in Soho, is Edgar Wright stepping out of his comfort zone and each film is virtuoso work on a level all its own. But only the Sparks Brothers won me over entirely.

In excising the more comedic elements of his last two features, I’ve been forced to reconsider what it is that I love about Wright’s work. The frenetic energy is still there, although there is the marked departure of his beloved quick-cut sequences, and the imagination and ingenuity of his camerawork is just as on-point as it ever was; moreso, even. Baby Driver and Last Night in Soho are both massive leaps forward in his use of editing and incorporating music into the actual structure of his narratives.

Baby Driver fell short for me, mostly because of the character work. There just wasn’t much going on there that pulled me in (and in retrospect, starring two people who have had horrendous sexual misconduct allegations leveled against them, maybe it’s for the best that I don’t have much interest in revisiting it). Last Night in Soho makes a concerted effort to fix that problem.

How much of that should be credited to co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful, 1917)? Who knows? What I do know is that for the first time in a long time, we have an Edgar Wright protagonist who is totally likeable in Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace, Jojo Rabbit, Old) as Eloise, the fresh-faced, doe-eyed country girl trying to make her way in the big city of London after she’s been accepted to The London College of Fashion as a designing student. The initial scenario isn’t all that original, given the country mouse/city mouse angle and the full-tilt Bad Girl conflict with her roommate Jocasta [No Last Name] (Synnove Karlsen) and crushing shy boy John (Michael Ajao).

But here’s the twist: Eloise is obsessed with the Swinging Sixties and sometimes sees the ghost (?) of her dead mother in the mirror. Oh, and there’s the lingering potential for full-blown mental illness in her genetics. Is it really her mother’s ghost or a building schizophrenic break with reality?

The answer to that question is one of the problems with the film. There’s no debating the absolute masterful filmmaking on display with nearly every single shot. Last Night in Soho is a visual masterpiece not only because of the cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, Thirst, Stoker, The Handmaiden, It, the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi, and dozens more), but because of the way Wright is able to integrate the contemporary scenes with those set in the Sixties.

Because, you see, Eloise, after moving out of the dorms and renting a room from the eccentric Ms. Collins (Dame Diana Rigg in her final role), begins having vivid dreams of living in the Swinging Sixties as a beautiful young woman named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), also just arrived in London and out to make it big as a singer.

If there’s any complaint to be made about the cinematography, it’s that once we become immersed in the Sixties setting, everything else about the film seems dull and drab in comparison. Aside from a few nice sequences, particularly the opening where Eloise dances around her room, lip-syncing to Peter & Gordon’s 1964 hit “A World Without Love,” it felt like large swaths of the film could have had anybody behind the camera – an opinion I’m sure will be disproven upon repeated viewings, by the way.

But the Sixties sequences are magnificent in every way possible, and the way Wright is able to work Eloise into the scenes, as reflections in Sixties mirrors, seamlessly switching places back and forth with Sandie (especially in a mind-boggling one-take dance scene where McKenzie and Taylor-Joy slip in and out of step with Matt Smith’s initially charming Jack), or simply seeing scenes unfold in mirrors in her room.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the attention paid to honoring the Sixties in the casting of a number of iconic performers. Rita Tushingham (Doctor Zhivago, The Knack… and How to Get It) plays Eloise’s grandmother, Terrence Stamp (The Collector, Modesty Blaise, Superman II, The Limey) is underutilized as a creepy old potential pervert, Margaret Nolan (Goldfinger) is the sage barmaid, and Dame Diana Rigg (The Avengers, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Game of Thones) plays the landlady with a secret.

So, without a doubt, this is Wright’s most confidently directed mainstream film (although it does heavily pay tribute to the classic giallo slashers of the Sixties and Seventies once we get to the final act), but the screenplay leaves a little something to be desired.

SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ON

As mentioned earlier, the mental health angle isn’t really handled with grace as the distinction between hallucination and ghosts isn’t really established overall – the ghosts seem real in the finale, but up until that point, there’s little to prioritize reality over fantasy, instead making it seem that Eloise may very well be losing her mind and following her mother on her road to breakdown and suicide. Similarly, the script can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants to go full #MeToo with predatory men commenting and leering in every scene, or, in the finale tease the idea that maybe Johns paying for prostitutes aren’t all bad, before finally settling in on the casual acceptance that yeah, Johns paying for prostitutes deserve to be violently murdered.

Overall, once the dust settles, the film comes down hard on the side of “sex workers are victims” and “sex work can drive one to extreme violence.” It’s in keeping with the tone and themes of classic giallo but rings a bit hollow to a contemporary audience. This isn’t to say that the Johns in the film aren’t horrible, but that’s the way Wright has chosen to portray them. You can’t have a good horror film without horrible people taking advantage of “innocent” people. The question of Sandie’s innocence isn’t ever questioned, even when we discover, in the climax, that she is the actual villain of the piece.

Sort of.

It’s all very awkward.

The ghost of dead, faceless Johns who have been tormenting Eloise and making her doubt her sanity, are begging for help. Their souls are not at peace because they were murdered by Sandie and buried in the walls and floorboards of the apartment building run by Ms. Collins – who is actually Sandie!!

This becomes problematic because Eloise’s visions of the Sixties showed her the bloody, brutal nightmarish scene where Jack murdered Sandie, when in reality, Jack is the “victim” in the scene. It undermines everything that we’ve seen so far, if the visions aren’t actually visions of the past, but are some sort of combination vision/hallucination. They can’t be strict hallucinations or dreams because she’s seeing actual events.

Or is she?

The twist ending calls into question everything we’ve already seen in the film. And if that nightmarish murder scene that pushes the film into full-blown giallo territory wasn’t problematic enough to the overall plot, it also completely whiffs on the contemporary social situation, since the backdrop for the murder/hallucination/vision is Eloise having invited John back to her room for some naughty times before she begins screaming bloody murder and Ms. Collins bursts in to find a black man standing over a shrieking white girl.

Did we not mention that John was black? His race doesn’t really play into the rest of the film in a way that plays to an “I don’t see color” kind of approach to storytelling, but this is a scenario where it seems there needs to be some comment made. Even the fact that John is ready and willing to forgive Eloise for her freakout, even though it could have literally gotten him killed, seems a little blind to reality. Not to mention the fact that at least commenting on the potential results of the scene could have played as a contemporary commentary in contrast to the ghosts of the Johns, is a missed opportunity.

Also not sure about the ethics of Eloise basing her entire school work on fashion designs that somebody else designed 60 years ago, but oh well.

But this isn’t really a film about realistic or nuanced sexual relationships or race relations. This is a horror movie that lives and dies in the “sex (outside of wedlock, possibly) is dirty and sinful, with murder and madness as the only real outcomes” lane. That’s a traditional giallo lane, so I’m not going to let it take away from the overall film, which is a beautifully shot and inventively edited story of love, fashion, ghosts, mental illness, and Sixties nostalgia.

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