Combustible Celluloid
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With: Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Diana Rigg, Terence Stamp, Rita Tushingham, Matt Smith, Michael Ajao, Synnøve Karlsen
Written by: Edgar Wright, Krysty Wilson-Cairns, based on a story by Edgar Wright
Directed by: Edgar Wright
MPAA Rating: R for bloody violence, sexual content, language, brief drug material and brief graphic nudity
Running Time: 116
Date: 10/29/2021

Last Night in Soho (2021)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

London Enthralling

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Edgar Wright's beautiful, brutal Last Night in Soho is awestruck by London in the 1960s, the glamor and the energy, but it also acknowledges its dark side, its murderous underbelly. The movie is alive, intoxicated on life-possibilities and suffering over the extent of evil. It's bursting with color and fabric, songs and dances, ghosts and history. (The title comes from a vintage tune by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, who also graced the soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof.)

Eloise, or Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie), has just been accepted to fashion school in London; she's also obsessed with the 1960s (she makes a dazzling entrance), but she has some kind of glitch in her matrix. She sees her dead mother in a mirror, and may be susceptible to emotional breakdowns if exposed to too much of what London has to offer. The dorms immediately rub Ellie the wrong way. Her roommate Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen) is a prissy bully, prone to throwing wild parties while Ellie tries to sleep.

She finds an old-timey room on the top floor of a nearby flat and happily takes it. Her landlady is Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg), who has seen it all. At night in bed, Ellie magically finds herself transported to the 1960s, welcomed by a massive Thunderball movie marquee. In a series of beautifully composed and edited shots, she appears in mirrors as Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), as if she were inhabiting her body. Sandie dreams of being a singer; she waltzes into a big night club and asks for the job, performing a showstopping dance besides. Sandie meets Jack (Matt Smith), who seems to be a big-time manager, and he sweeps her off her feet.

Ellie awakens, thrilled, and begins designing a dress based on the one from her "dream." She can't wait to get back to bed, and even when the nice-guy John (Michael Ajao) works up the nerve to ask her out, she tells him she has plans. (He's a straight, Black man in fashion-design class!) In the dreamworld, Sandie gives an audition, singing "Downtown" in a slow, haunting coo. But, to Ellie's horror, it soon becomes clear that Sandie is to be used more for her body than for her voice; she's supposed to entertain lewd, icky men in order to begin her climb to the top — a climb that only goes sideways.

The images grow more and more nightmarish as they creep into Ellie's daylight hours. (McKenzie does a great deal of heavy lifting with all the panicking, screaming, and rapid breathing she is required to do.) John is always willing to help her, however, and the movie has one of its most powerful scenes as, after a Halloween dance, Ellie takes him back to her room. Just when things get going, she has a shocking vision of a murder; she's screaming at her visions, and it looks as if she's screaming at John.

It all comes down to the heroes having to uncover the reason for these hauntings, and it may have something to do with an older gentleman (Terence Stamp) who seems to be hanging around all the time. Wright and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917) seem to know that this is familiar horror-movie territory, so they jump right in, ramping it up and making it big. There's no room to think about the puzzle, only time to cling to dear life as Ellie goes through her torments.

Last Night in Soho represents a fresh, new direction for director Wright, who was already one of my favorites for his jokey, streamlined genre films with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and for his other, energized, cinema-love delights. Those films were full of winks. This, however, is the first time he has really crafted a female-driven story, and one that bleeds like a Douglas Sirk picture. It connects to his other films, and it evolves, too.

The John character was a bit problematic for me; he's introduced with a hint of menace, and there's a joke about his commute from South London, but otherwise, we know precious little about him, other than how nice he is. Likewise, Jocasta is first shown as a promising character, but eventually only rolls her eyes and scoffs at everything Ellie does; she's nothing more than a devil's advocate sounding board. I wish these characters had been fleshed out a bit more, but otherwise, I wouldn't change a frame of Last Night in Soho. It's a whirlwind of excitement and danger, unironic, and a powerful rush.

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