The films of Edgar Wright are stooped in references, unafraid to invoke his influences with reverie, winking at those in the audience who share in that unbridled affection. His latest, Last Night in Soho, achieves this with the most abandon, blending together such inspirations as giallo, Basil Dearden, and even Fosse for a spell. It’s an unexpected mix, all set to a quintessentially joyous and try-hard Wright-assembled soundtrack. But the gorgeous horror movie spell collapses quickly as Wright wanders into unfamiliar thematic territory. Last Night in Soho’s stumbles reveal that Edgar Wright is perhaps an enthusiast first, and storyteller second. Or maybe third.
Thomasin McKenzie stars as Eloise, a contemporary girl enamored of the swinging 1960s lifestyle and entering fashion school in London. Taking up an attic room under the sternly watchful eye of a landlady (Diana Rigg) and the charms of a sweet classmate who fancies her, John (Michael Ajao). But in her dreams, she finds herself transported to the era she adores and planted into the body of a hopeful singer who once inhabited her room, Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). Quickly, the bliss of her visions turn from inspiration to the macabre, with Eloise trying to solve a murder mystery from another era.
Eloise’s introduction into the club scene of 1960s London is a swirling showstopper, a centerpiece of the film that marries nifty visual effects to the torch song power of “You’re My World.” But it is an early high that the film struggles to match the wizardry of elsewhere. As we volley between Eloise’s increasingly terrified state in the present day to the trials of show business misogyny in Sandie’s time, blunt story machinations take hold. Rather than being propulsively paced like even his weaker work could boast, the film’s rigid plotting makes for a surprisingly predictable affair and one where the tension is fatally stunted.
And despite the stiff structure, Wright is flimsy, obvious, and still somehow confused with how he explores the sexual predation of women, both today and in the yesteryear of our nostalgia. As the film wraps up, its reveals attempt to subvert the scenario only to try to pull out another rug; it’s not only an overly complex finale, it’s one that muddles the entire point of the movie. Furthermore, the film is outright admonishable for what it puts its sole Black character through, irresponsibly tangling the film’s most violent moment with one that positions him as accused of sexual assault with horrific psychological immediacy. Co-scripted between Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, it’s an enticing pitch with a hollow, irksome follow through.
It may be that the film’s intentions are out of Edgar Wright’s depth. Wright is directly grappling with the painful toxic history of his influences that was buried by the culture of the past and brought into the light by the modern day. It’s an admirable pursuit and an initially exciting one to examine within a horror context, but one that the director is not equipped to explore with much insight beyond the banal. Here the pastiche fails him, exposing Wright and his always referential voice as floundering for substance beyond style. Even further, he makes his reference points so plain as to reveal that he may not have much style of his own and is instead just mimicking what inspires him.
What are Wright’s own ideas? What does he have to say about those films and songs he so clearly loves beyond that he loves them? If Last Night in Soho isn’t Wright’s worst film, it makes a strong case for the one where he has lost himself.