Last Night in Soho starts off as a charming comedy about a young woman who goes to London to pursue her dreams of becoming a fashion designer. After the first act, it morphs into a mystery, before turning into a full-on horror movie in the second hour. Director Edgar Wright lulls us in, just as his lead character is lulled into the realization that things are much, much worse than they initially seem. An approach like that can be risky to pull off, but Wright is a master at manipulating genre conventions, having previously made Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and even The Sparks Brothers, the latter of which turned the documentary format on its ear. This time, he's created a stylish, substantive picture that provides consistent jolts.
Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) has some mental health issues. Her mother committed suicide when she was a girl, and she often believes that she sees her in mirrors. Nevertheless, she packs up her belongings and hops a train to London to attend fashion school. Ellie quickly moves out of her dorm, thanks to some less-than-kind peers, instead renting a room in a big old house owned by Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg, in a performance that deserves serious awards consideration). It seems like an ideal set-up.
Then something strange begins happening. When she goes to sleep at night, Ellie dreams that she's in the Soho section of London during the 1960's – an era she's obsessed with. Every time she looks in a mirror, she doesn't see herself, she sees Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), an aspiring singer who falls under the spell of a sleazy manager, Jack (Matt Smith). In the film's most show-stopping scene, Jack dances with Sandie, who repeatedly morphs into Ellie and then back again, all in one seamless shot. Is this a dream? Has Ellie turned into Sandie, or are they the same person? And if Jack is not the benevolent figure he initially presents himself as, what does that mean for Ellie? Those are just some of the questions raised by the story.
There's more to it than that, of course, although the mysteries of the plot should be preserved. What I like about the story is that it doesn't go the expected route. I anticipated that Last Night in Soho was going to be about fractured identity and how we see ourselves. A female Fight Club, so to speak. Instead, it goes in a less predictable direction, tackling a theme of victimhood that has relevance to both of the plot's time frames. The film contains several traditional – and very bloody – horror elements, yet it's the subject matter that's most frightening. Everything else, including Ellie's disturbing visions, are here to give weight to that connection between the two women at the core.
Wright creates a sensual ambiance. Together with cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (Oldboy) and an ace production design team, the director fetishizes '60s Soho, turning it into a virtual fantasyland. Consequently, we look forward to the scenes set in the past. We want to lose ourselves there. Once we're hooked, Wright promptly begins making us want to get out of Soho, just as Ellie does. It's a clever switch that underlines the journey our heroine goes on, while simultaneously reminding us that bad things can happen in beautiful, seemingly idyllic locations.
Thomasin McKenzie has been establishing herself as one of our best young actresses for several years now. In everything from Leave No Trace to Jojo Rabbit to Old, she has shown incredible range to match her natural onscreen charisma. As Ellie, she gives her most complex performance to date, creating a timid character who has to find an inner strength she didn't know she had after facing unspeakably terrifying visions. Anya Taylor-Joy, another of our best young actresses, is excellent too, showing how Sandie uses a sultry exterior to cover up the pain inside. Despite not having any typical scenes together, the stars make the connection between Ellie and Sandie register powerfully.
Great atmosphere, superb performances, and meaningful subject matter mix into a spellbinding nightmare. Last Night in Soho is continually surprising and original, marking it as a welcome change of pace from our current brand-driven, more-of-the-same cinematic climate. You'll be entertained and unnerved in equal measure.
out of four
Last Night in Soho is rated R for bloody violence, sexual content, language, brief drug material and brief graphic nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.