In some ways, Last Night in Soho marks filmmaker Edgar Wright's most ambitious project yet. Having first earned acclaim with his sitcom Spaced before making a trilogy of genre-bending experiences with Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World's End, his latest film marks what would be his first attempts at delivering audiences an unsettling story without any hints of satire of parody. What's been clear throughout his filmography is that Wright absolutely loves film, and while he's happy to poke fun at tropes, he's also happy to put his own perspective on those conventions while also embracing them with love and authenticity. Last Night in Soho doesn't pave much of a new path for the genre, instead feeling like a superbly stylish love letter to suspenseful thrillers from the '60s and '70s.
Moving from the countryside into the city for fashion school, Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) is both excited and apprehensive about the complete cultural shift she's making. Amidst these struggles, she moves off campus and rents a room in a house with a lot of history, as her unexplainable connection to figures from the past manifest by transporting her back to Soho in the '60s, experiencing all its sights and sounds through the eyes of up-and-coming singer Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy). Despite the initial excitement and inspiration from having a foot in two worlds, Eloise learns that neither she nor Sandy will end up going down the path they're expecting.
From the first glimpses audiences caught of Last Night in Soho, there were immediate comparisons to filmmakers like Brian De Palma and Dario Argento, and for good reason. Wright has expressed his love for those auteurs over the years, with his work on this film managing to channel them without directly ripping them off. Between the extended takes and kinetic camera movements to the bright neon and striking lighting, this is arguably the most visually arresting of all of Wright's film, which says a lot given his accomplished history. Much like his notoriety for injecting unique musical selections into his film, the soundtrack also fully immerses audiences in the spirit of the '60s, organically using music as the link the past with the present, without these choices ever really feeling like "needle drops" of well-known tracks to cash in on established connections the audience might have with the music.
Much like the film's aesthetic feels like Wright took all of his influences and put them in a blender, the narrative itself, which Wright co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, won't be all that unexpected to cinephiles, having seen countless versions of stories about the past coming back to haunt the living for decades. Whether it be through films with supernatural themes, true-crime stories about missing people, or more grounded narratives about the first impressions that hide people's true nature, Last Night in Soho's got it all. Surely some viewers will dismiss the film as being derivative, but it could be argued that by making their narrative influences so apparent, in addition to their refusal to merely channel one psychological thriller as its main inspiration, what makes this story work is just how diverse and just how many films it channels into this contemporary experience.
A majority of the film hinges on McKenzie's performance, which also requires her to feel frantic and dizzied throughout much of its run time. The actor immediately manages to evoke empathy from the audience, which is what makes her descent into a hallucinatory madness so effective. She clearly also knows the tone that the film required, which means neither she nor the story is afraid to lean into the inherent camp to exaggerate those reactions, even if they serve as a slight departure from reality. The supporting cast, which also includes Matt Smith and Terence Stamp, are all there to support Eloise's story and do so competently, but the show really belongs to McKenzie, even if Taylor-Joy also gets to showcase her singing skills.
Wright has expressed ahead of the release of the film that the inspiration from the story came from strolling through Soho itself, reflecting on the vast history the neighborhood has experienced. This is adequately displayed in the story, as it's less about the specifics of any one person or one incident, and more about the countless experiences shared by people throughout history, in both triumph and tragedy. Sandy wasn't the first singer to have a bumpy road to the top and Eloise wasn't the first student to have a hard time adjusting to her schoolmates. One could say that there are truly no unique journeys in life, with that sensibility feeling as though it's being replicated by the storyline itself.
The pieces that make up Eloise or Sandy's journey have been experienced by many before them, yet their trajectories have brought these events together in their own way. Last Night in Soho is far from original, borrowing heavily from a variety of predecessors, though these influences all come together in a satisfying and thrilling way, surely leading audiences to hope straightforward horror is a realm that Wright won't be a stranger to going forward.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Last Night in Soho hits theaters on October 29th.