It is appropriate I am writing my review of Last Night in Soho immediately after writing my review of The Menu, not only because I watched them back-to-back, and not only because they both feature Anya Taylor-Klaus, but because I had a similar attitude about both of them prior to.
Despite the names and talent attached to Last Night in Soho, which includes the talented Thomasin McKenzie (who I last saw in the very good film Jojo Rabbit) and director Edgar Wright (who directed Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a film I positively reviewed, amongst other well-received features) at the helm, I have spent the better part of two years actively ignoring this film like the plague.
This film received a positive reception from audiences, but failed to light up the box office the way I am certain Universal Studios would have hoped, with Edgar hot off the success of his film Baby Driver.
Last Night in Soho is a peculiar film, which is something I am always enthusiastic about. Anytime a filmmaker tries to do something different than what is expected, especially a made-man like Edgar Wright, it is something I fully commend.
The film follows an aspiring fashion designer named Eloise as she moves to London to begin her pursuit at a fashion career. The film portrays the character as having a romanticized perception of what it was like in 1960s London, visualizing it with a glitz and glammed tinted lens, glamorizing what the film reveals wasn’t actually a great time for everyone involved. This bodes true particularly for a dazzling singer named Sandie, and the many hardships she faces in pursuit of fame and notoriety. As Eloise discovers herself able to mysteriously enter the 1960s, or, at least, immerse herself into Sandie’s perspective, she discovers the dark underbelly lying beneath.
I went into this film mildly intrigued and walked away from it very impressed. If nothing beyond what I am about to go in depth on, it is very unique from what is usually released, especially at a mainstream level.
Last Night in Soho plays out as an old-fashioned, twisty-turvy ghost story. If stripped to the bare essentials, I could almost imagine this type of film marketed toward a younger crowd. It feels sweet and sentimental, and yet vicious and mean-spirited. As a film, it has a sort of tonal mishmash that feels like it shouldn’t work and yet, it does. Thomasin McKenzie’s portrayal of Eloise has a child-like naivety to it that feels like it radiates through the entire film, a hopeful radiance that always feels present in the darkest of times. Even when the film goes off its rocker and starts to deal with much darker subject matter, like rape and murder, or features drug use and profanity, it never fully shakes off that radiance. I believe a lot of credit goes to McKenzie for helping instill that feeling of enchantment.
It captures a nostalgic depiction of the 60s nightlife district, that sours into ugly hard truths, making for a spellbinding, unique blend of elements. The cinematography in this film is fantastic, and enough credit can not be afforded to Edgar Write and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung for the sheer about of flash and style the film carries from start to finish. There is an argument to be able made style and substance in this film, whether it tries to do ‘too’ much in a ‘man of all trades, master of none’ type way, but I would commend it as managing to knock many of what it does out of the park. The film is a highlight reel of genuinely neat visuals and creative camerawork.
On the subject of substance, neither Eloise nor Sandie has a whole lot of depth. Whether it be the relationships they cultivate, their pasts (Eloise has a deceased mother that is vaguely touched on, but never really developed beyond the initial fact – there is also a history of mental illness that could likely have been expanded on), or some of the other character smaller characters that are established but don’t ultimately play as big a part as one might expected. This is a film where the style is heavy and the emotion is there, but the smarts and heavy-lifting to earn that emotion isn’t always apparent. The storyline is simple, in retrospect, but can feel a little unnecessarily convoluted and messy in its execution, verging a little on absurdity.
I believe all of what I said is a fair and reasonable criticism to levy against the film. Regardless, I will say I found myself enthralled with the film from start to finish. McKenzie dazzles as the “new in town”, doughy-eyed girl whose hopes and dreams are brutally stomped out, whereas Anya Taylor-Klaus delivers a strong performance as the starlet met by misogyny and hatefulness, feeling both effectively glamorous and larger than life and sympathetic when bad people make her feel small. They aren’t necessarily fleshed out characters, but they are both characters that Klaus and McKenzie are natural fits for.
Last Night in Soho is an absolute feast, bolstered by strong actors and a thematically powerful narrative. Even when it may not be ‘earned’, per se, it’s so damn-good it is hard to tell the difference. It is so refreshing to see a film with so much vision behind it, and I think in this instance, that was enough to carry the film. If you step back and look at it, a lot of it may start to feel disproportionate or uneven narratively, but I found the film so fun and watchable that I never felt compelled to do that.