Edgar Wright is one of our great musical directors, even though he hasn’t technically made a musical yet. Whether they’re fighting the undead, or laying waste to quiet Cotswold towns, or driving getaway cars for assorted goons, his heroes move to melodies and rhythms both real and imagined, their gestures and glances timed to the beats of the director’s carefully chosen soundtracks. This isn’t just a stylistic feature. In Shaun of the Dead, the protagonists tried to behead zombies with vinyl LPs. In Baby Driver, the wheelman hero always had to have a pair of earphones on while driving; his music was his superpower, and without it, he was helpless. In Wright’s worlds, pop can transform reality and make you a different person.
And so, in the opening scenes of Last Night in Soho, we see soon-to-be-fashion student Ellie Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) buoyantly dancing around her Cornwall home to the strains of Peter & Gordon’s 1964 hit “A World Without Love.” Her room is covered in posters, pictures, and other arcana from the 1960s — so much so, that were it not for a digital clock in the background and the fact that her dress (presumably her own design) appears to have been made from a color newspaper, we could easily mistake the actual setting for the ’60s. Watching Ellie as she bounces around and playfully reassures her worried grandmother (Rita Tushingham, herself a ’60s icon) that her upcoming move to London will be perfectly safe, we might imagine this young woman as someone joyful, bold, infinitely confident. But once she arrives in the big city, we see that she’s actually unbearably reserved — an anxious, mousy dreamer who struggles to connect with her (admittedly shallow) cohort. Looking to get away from her party-girl roommates, Ellie rents a room in Soho that looks like it came straight out of a dollhouse version of The Conformist, the lights from the French restaurant across the street bathing her in reds and blues. Her new landlady, Ms. Collins (played by the late, great Diana Rigg, another icon from that earlier era), tells her she’d never sell this place, because it’s got “too many memories.”
Maybe literally. As she lies down to bed every night, Ellie dreams that she’s a gorgeous blonde named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) making her way through the freewheeling, colorful, fast-paced London of 1965. Are these dreams, or are they something more? Ellie returns every night to Sandie’s world and sees her alter ego’s burgeoning relationship with a young, demonically handsome nightlife impresario named Jack (Matt Smith), who promises Sandie he can help her get a gig performing at one of the city’s hot spots. The statuesque Sandie seems to be everything Ellie is not — a brash eye-turner, a great dancer and singer — and so, back in the present, Ellie dyes her hair blonde and starts to mimic Sandie’s way of dressing and walking, finding her own swagger as a result.
But Soho is also Edgar Wright’s version of a horror movie, so Sandie’s world quickly starts to turn into something of a nightmare, and we are reminded that Swinging London came with its share of menace, betrayal, and violence. What seemed like a nightly trip into fantasyland starts to feel like a prison of the mind for the mentally fragile Ellie, as Sandie’s reality begins bleeding into her own. Which prompts all sorts of horror-movie questions: Is Sandie somehow sending messages to Ellie from the beyond? What happened to Sandie, anyway? And what can Ellie do about it?
A pop-culture savant himself, Wright understands Ellie’s aspirational neurosis — the illusory liberation that comes through projecting oneself into movies and songs and stories and images. But such obsessions can become its own sort of gilded psychological cage. The director has a grand old time orchestrating Ellie and Sandie’s conjoined realities, the camera swooping and spinning through a colorful, fast-paced, evocatively lit universe where the music never stops and the drinks never cease. In Sandie’s world, we usually see Ellie as a reflection in the mirror — a visual conceit that works so well because mirrored ceilings and walls and stairwells were all the rage back then. During one dance scene, Sandie takes the floor with Jack, but as they spin and swerve, it becomes a three-way roundelay; not only does Sandie keep changing into Ellie, but at times it feels like all three are dancing simultaneously. There’s an ecstatic quality to such scenes, but there’s also a moral undercurrent to the relentless choreography: Even as we sense that Ellie is completely at the mercy of Sandie, being sucked into this lovely young woman’s vortex, we notice, gradually, that Sandie herself isn’t instigating any of the action around her; she’s merely riding it. Neither girl, in other words, has any agency in this universe. As much as Ellie wants to be a Sandie, we may start to wonder if Sandie herself was once an Ellie.
Soho eventually goes to some dark places, with Wright utilizing shock tactics and jump scares with the same kid-in-a-candy-store voraciousness he brings to the film’s pop montages. That can have a somewhat numbing effect. Wright as a director seems less conversant with the dark corners of the psyche that (good) horror generally plumbs. He’s a playful poptimist at heart, and the film’s sordid, blood-soaked third act, while never boring, has a dutiful, bludgeoning quality. His red herrings don’t always work, either: One particular narrative surprise involving a certain male character feels telegraphed fairly early on, perhaps because Wright, at least on a visual and narrative level, doesn’t really do subtlety. But really, who wants subtlety? Such stylistic indulgence is very much in keeping with the film’s general over the topness. Whatever its occasional stumbles, Last Night in Soho is a mostly intoxicating affair.
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