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Last Night in Soho
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Blood And Black Lace"
3 stars

“Last Night in Soho” is a bizarre and violent horror-thriller that has made with style to burn—so much, in fact, that the narrative ends up getting lost in all the attendant smoke and haze. This may seem an odd criticism coming from me considering how I have lavished praise on filmmakers like Brian De Palma who also specialize in films that are aesthetically stunning but which sometimes feature narratives that teeter between the goofy and the completely insane. It may also be surprising because I have generally liked the films of Edgar Wright, the co-writer/director whose previous efforts have included “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz” and “Baby Driver.” And yet, while Wright has clearly assembled the pieces for this one with love, he doesn’t seem to have quite thought them all through and the result is an admittedly incredible-looking film that starts off on an undeniably intriguing note that it never quits manages to sustain, though, to be sure, it is still trying right up until the very end.

At this point, I would advise anyone planning on seeing the film—and while I am not entirely certain I would recommend that, I certainly would not want to discourage anyone from taking it in either—to put this and all other reviews aside and go in knowing as little about it as possible. Of course, if you were genuinely worried about spoilers, you probably would not be here in the first place and regardless, the trailers for the film have already kind of given away too much as it is. Nevertheless, while I am not going to blab any of the important developments, it is impossible to discuss the film at all without touching on at least a couple of plot incidentals. Remember—you have been warned!

As the film opens, Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) is dancing through the rural Cornwall house that she shares with her doting granny (Rita Tushingham) to the sounds of Peter & Gordon’s “A World Without Love” in a dress that she has fashioned for herself out of newspapers. A deep devotee of anything connected with London’s Swinging Sixties era, the period when the city was literally the center of the pop culture universe, she is overjoyed to learn that she has been accepted to study fashion design there at a prestigious university—it will allow here to finally experience the fabled area first-hand instead of vicariously through the records and ephemera in her room. More importantly, she feels that it will allow her to honor her late mother, who also had fashion-related dreams along with emotional instability issues that caused her to take her life when Ellie was only seven.

Upon arrival, she is immediately ostracized by her bitchy posh roommate (Rebecca Harrod) and her equally loathsome friends for her homemade clothes and retro music tastes. After stumbling across an ad for a vacant room in a house located smack in the middle of Soho, she ends up renting it from Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg), the sweet old lady who has been living there since those glory days of the Sixties. At night, the glow from the red-and-blue neon sign adorning the French restaurant next door gives the room an otherworldly vibe straight from another era. That proves to be the case in more ways than one because as soon as Ellie goes to bed, she finds herself somehow transported back to the mid-60s iteration of the area, complete with streets adorned with glitzy nightclubs, chic fashions and a massive marquee announcing the premiere engagement of “Thunderball.”

Ellie is not exactly alone on this adventure either as she appears to be serving as the shadow of Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy), who has just arrived determined to become the next Cilla Black. (When one walks past a mirrored surface, we see the reflection of the other.) Ellie follows Sandy to the famed Cafe de Paris nightclub, where she catches the eye of slick talent manager Jack (Matt Smith) just before Ellie’s alarm goes off and she is returned to comparatively drab reality. The same thing happens each night and at first, it is exciting to watch as Jack get Sandy a singing audition that she nails with a nifty rendition of “Downtown.” Unfortunately for her, Jack is not all that he seems t be at first and before long, Sandy is stuck as a background dancer in a sleazy club and spends her offstage time being pimped out by Jack to a seemingly endless parade of rich, faceless sleazeballs. Ellie is forced to witness all of the brutal degradation that Sandy has to endure but cannot do anything about any of it, not even at the inevitable point where—well, that is where I will say no more.

There is more—much more—but in essence, “Last Night in Soho” suggests what would result if someone elected to take Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” and reconceived it as a blood-soaked vehicle for the likes of Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci—the restaurant next door may be technically French but the vivid red and blue hues that it fills Ellie’s room with are pure Italian giallo. Honestly, that does sound like a promising premise for a film and indeed, the early scenes in which the conceit unfolds before our eyes are undeniably intriguing. Wright’s evocation of the era is just as lavishly appointed as Quentin Tarantino’s take on the late days of the decade in “Once Upon a Time. . .in Hollywood”—between the hypnotic visuals supplied by cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung and the driving all-killer, no filler soundtrack of period classics, we in the audience are just as giddy to see it unfold before our eyes as Ellie is. In addition, McKenzie is enormously likable and sympathetic as Ellie and Taylor-Joy is equally impressive as another aspiring starlet who learns the hard way about the dark side of the bright lights of show business.

The trouble is that right around the point where the story shifts into truly dark areas—precisely the point where it should be getting really interesting, it begins to stumble and never quite manages to right itself again. The screenplay by Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns looks for a while as if it wants to serve as an exploration of the mistreatment that women have suffered over the years in the name of the pop culture heedlessness that both Wright and Ellie clearly revere. Alas, it ends up more or less losing its nerve in that regard in order to concentrate more on Ellie doggedly trying to solve the mystery of what may or may not have happened more than a half-century earlier while growing increasingly frazzled as visions of that literally nightmarish past begin to crop up in her waking life as well, much to the consternation of extremely tentative sorta-boyfriend/classmate John (Michael Ajao in the most weakly-written part). Wright and Wilson-Cairns also try to muddy the waters by throwing in a couple of red herrings but since it is so obvious that they are meant to be distractions that you can practically here the narrative wheels spinning every time the film goes back to them.

Perhaps the oddest thing about “Last Night in Soho” is the fact that even though Wright clearly knows his way around the horror genre—the film is peppered with allusions and homages throughout—he has somehow managed a example of the form that simply isn’t scary. Oh sure, there is a decent amount of spurting blood and wild violence and Jack is certainly loathsome enough but there is never any point when it becomes genuinely nightmarish. Even “Shaun of the Dead,” which was primarily a comedy, had a few decent shocks to go along with the yuks. Here, the horrific elements are just kind of bland and unformed and the overall lack of suspense throughout does not help matters much either. ‘

“Last Night in Soho” is pretty much the exact kind of film that its central character might have produced if she had elected to study filmmaking instead of fashion design—a glittery and almost fetishistic celebration of the Swinging Sixties (right down to the presence of such icons as Rigg, Tushingham and Terrence Stamp in small parts) that looks great on the surface but doesn’t have much to offer beyond that. Even though I don’t exactly recommend it, I must admit to a certain degree of admiration for it—instead of doing one of the numerous blockbuster properties that he has no doubt in offered, Wright has instead elected to make this weird and personal tribute/critique of the pleasures and perils of a bygone era. It is just too bad that he wasn’t able to make it a good one in the process.

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originally posted: 10/29/21 02:49:12
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2021 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 Venice Film Festival For more in the 2021 Venice Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 London Film Festival For more in the 2021 London Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/30/21 morrris campbell not bad well made and well acted 4 stars
11/21/21 Louise (the real one) A colourful retro feast with plenty of intrigue & several shock moments. Loved it. 5 stars
11/04/21 Madge Agree with Sobczynski -- it's a bit of a mess but interesting for a baby-boomer like me 4 stars
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  29-Oct-2021 (R)
  DVD: 18-Jan-2022



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