Nostalgia is a powerful emotion, and yearning for the past can often feel like remembering a place and time when things were seemingly simpler, better and more beautiful. Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho is here to remind us that this form of sentimentality for the past is also a cruel and potentially dangerous drug.
The British director’s first full-on foray into psychological terror (with a time-hopping twist that recalls Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and has a debt to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion) sees Thomasin Mackenzie play Eloise, a budding modern-day fashion student who moves from Cornwall to London. There, she is quickly ostracized by her chic “gap yaaah” London College of Fashion peers who cruelly label her “code beige”. Fleeing student housing and finding a bedsit rented to her by the kind-but-no-nonsense Miss Collins (the late Diana Rigg, to whom the film is dedicated), she is soon dreamily transported back to Sixties Soho. During these lucid nocturnal trips, she meets what seems to be her supressed id / alter-ego, Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a confident singer beginning a relationship with smooth bequiffed operator Jack (Matt Smith), who promises to help her achieve cabaret stardom. But the barriers separating past and present soon begin to collapse and the glamorous nostalgic feel of a time Eloise idolises starts to open some much darker doors.
Wright has previously shown with Spaced and Shaun Of The Dead that he’s well versed in the horror genre. Here, he populates his London giallo with a grab-bag of tropes from various horror subgenres: ghostly hauntings, creepy doppelgangers, zombie-like hordes of past spirits, and the dream/reality bleed recalls the sleep-haunting antics of a certain razor-gloved prick who continues to haunt my nightmares. All these elements are neatly blended together, but the end result weirdly feels like it’s missing something.
The production and location team manage to believably whisk you back to swinging Soho, and massive plaudits go to Marcus Rowland’s fantastic designs and Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography, which elevates the intoxicating nature of the retro playground. To which adds itself a killer 60s soundtrack, featuring needle-drops from Petula Clark, Cilla Black and The Kinks.
There’s also much to admire about the technical trickery within mirror-based sequences and precisely choreographed mid-shot switcheroos. Reminiscent of famous mimicking mirror scenes in Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup or even that X Files episode in which David Duchovny and Michael McKean aped each other’s movements to perfection, the reflective surfaces work wonders here and buttress the mystery regarding who Sandie really is: a manifestation of Eloise’s schizophrenia or a doppelganger aching to burst from the past into the present?
However, for all these strong visual elements, Last Night in Soho’s downfall is Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns’ screenplay, which is too scattershot and heavy-handed to convincingly wrestle with its initially-promising themes of intergenerational trauma and the exploitation of women. Worse, it at times undermines some of its feminist credentials.
The script condemns the film to being hollower than it had let on, and as much as Wright wants to warn us about the intoxicating dangers of romanticising eras and reductive nostalgia, this too ends up backfiring: if you hark back to the Greek origins of the word – nóstos (returning home) and álgos (suffering) – you feel that a rewatch of Last Night in Soho might end up as a painful homecoming. As unarguably entertaining-in-the-moment as it is, this coasts a bit too much on its technical presentation and doesn’t feel like it has much staying power.
Last Night In Soho D: Edgar Wright (UK, 2021), with Thomasin Mackenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, Diana Rigg / Starts November 11.