‘Last Night in Soho’ Review: Edgar Wright Explores the Dark Side of Nostalgia
The last five films I reviewed on ScreenCrush are:
-A Marvel movie based on a cult comic book of the 1970s.
-An adaptation of the 1960s’ most beloved science-fiction novel.
-A legacyquel to a genre-defining slasher movie.
-The 25th James Bond film.
-A Marvel movie featuring one of the company’s biggest characters of the 1990s.
In other words, almost every big movie that Hollywood produces these days is awash in some kind of nostalgia. Whether it’s because these properties come with built-in audiences, or because filmmakers and executives have run out of new ideas, mainstream cinema’s present is all about its past. If Hollywood was a person rather than an industry, you might even say they had an unhealthy fixation on the past. An obsession, maybe.
The toxic nature of all-consuming nostalgia is one of the more interesting subtexts bubbling through Edgar Wright’s timely new film, Last Night in Soho. Unlike the five previous movies I reviewed on this site, it’s not directly based on anything — although it clearly draws inspiration from numerous sources, including Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and assorted giallo films. That’s nothing new for Wright; most of his movies take ideas and images from well-worn genres, like zombie films and buddy cop picture. His earlier efforts, though, were mostly about finding escape and humor through old cinematic tropes. Last Night in Soho lures viewers in with the idea of a seductive past then reveals the seedy reality that those great old movies and wonderful music might be covering up. In this movie, living in the past can kill you.
You might even say its heroine suffers from the disease of nostalgia. That’s Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), who dreams of moving out of her grandmother’s home in the English countryside to pursue a career in fashion, making clothes inspired by the vibe of the swinging ’60s. Eloise gets accepted to art school and moves to London, only to find that the city is not quite as simple as it sounds in her grandma’s old vinyl records. Lecherous cab drivers make thinly veiled passes at her, and her college roommate can barely disguise her contempt for Eloise’s provincial clothes and soft-spoken personality.
Alone and unhappy, Eloise moves out of her dorm and finds a room to rent. The landlady, Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg), does not allow male visitors or any changes to the loft’s decor. Neither rule poses an issue for Eloise. She finds the room’s vintage ambiance inspiring and she’s not dating anyone anyway. In fact, when a classmate named John (Michael Ajao) takes an interest in her, she ditches him to go back to her new place and sleep alone instead.
That’s because when she sleeps in Ms. Collins’ house, Eloise experiences wild, vivid dreams. In them, she’s transformed from a mousy fashion student in 2021 into a glamorous and confident starlet on the rise in the 1960s. This woman is named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Eloise watches from behind mirrors and reflections as Sandy strides and sways her way to musical stardom with the help of a suave and handsome manager named Jack (Matt Smith).
Eloise’s dreams of Sandie pulse with excitement and romance, along with plenty of Wright’s signature visual style; in one bravura sequence, Eloise and Sandie keep switching places while they both dance with Jack. But little by little, dream by dream, the alluring veneer of the 1960s slips, exposing the time’s tawdry, misogynistic, or outright violent side. Once Eloise’s dreams become nightmares she can’t escape them, even in the daytime. Is she going crazy or is she actually being haunted by the ghosts of a real crime that took place in her room?
Like most good horror movies, Last Night in Soho uses allegory to turn real-life trauma into a supernatural threat. In this case, it’s not only Eloise’s all-consuming preoccupation with the past, it’s also the very relatable pressure of living up to her late mother and grandmother’s expectations. Strip out the spirits and visions, and Last Night in Soho is still a pretty engrossing character study of an unstable young woman overwhelmed by her new home and new responsibilities.
Taylor-Joy makes a perfect Sandie; the ideal image of a swinging ’60s woman who gets betrayed by the men she trusts. As Eloise, McKenzie has a much more difficult and thankless role. Her character remains meek and afraid for almost the entire film, and it can get frustrating to follow such a helpless and passive protagonist at times.
The characters around Eloise are often far more appealing, including three played by ’60s icons. Rita Tushingham from The Knack ... and How to Get It is Ellie’s saintly grandmother, while Rigg shines as the mercurial Ms. Collins. (Rigg passed away last fall, not long after finishing work on Last Night in Soho.) Terence Stamp works his menacing magic as an aging Lothario who Eloise comes to suspect may be responsible for the horrors in Sandie’s past.
Wright and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns screenplay falters a little in the third act; it relies on a couple of twists that are either too poorly established or too obvious to properly land. (They might also undermine the film’s themes, although that’s debatable.) Still, even when the story stumbles, the cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung is absolutely gorgeous — especially when Eloise journeys back to Sandie’s last nights in Soho. It’s easy to see why she gets so lost in this world of the past. For better or worse, we all like to do that sometimes.