The protagonist of Last Night in Soho, Edgar Wright’s latest film, can be viewed as a surrogate for any number of filmmakers, including, just maybe, the one who presides over her story. Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) is a young woman from the sticks who fulfills her dream of attending fashion school in London. She’s idealized the bustling city, in part because of the time her dearly departed mother spent there in her own youth. The affection Ellie feels for the metropolis has a time stamp. She loves everything about London in the ninety-sixties, from the fashions to the fancy clubs to the music pressed into the grooves of the records pass down to her by her gran (Rita Tushingham). When the transition to university proves emotionally challenging, Ellie magically seeks sanctuary in that pined-for past, moving spectrally alongside a glamorous singer named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy).
Wright’s film is as bedecked with meticulously recreated signifiers of the bygone era as Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and any number of other cinematic efforts that fetishize the cooler, better past. Wright and his collaborators take evident pleasure in deploying the fashions, the décor, and the groovy dance moves. The music selected for the film is especially dazzling. As has often been the case in Wright’s films, the needledrop selections are original and tonally perfect, capturing the spirit of a moment without leaning on familiarity to do it. The smartest achievement of Last Night in Soho is that the reverence for the good old days stops at the lip of the narrative itself. The screenplay, co-written by Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, makes the argument that the times were not so great for many who lived through them. Sandie has her aspirations leveraged against her by a slew of predatory men, the leering pack led by an ostensible entertainment manager named Jack (Matt Smith).
The film dabbles in mystery and eventually shifts into full-on horror. Leaner is better, largely because it helps keep the focus on the dual protagonists separated by a few decades. Both McKenzie and Taylor-Joy are dandy in their roles, and Wright knows precisely how to tilt the film to their strengths. I’m especially fond of the moments when McKenzie is in emotional retreat and speaks in the tiniest voice imaginable. On the flip, Taylor-Joy demonstrates an amazing ability to send pure fury out of her giant eyes. The film falters when it strays too far from their connection, whether in the tedious introductory passages depicting Ellie’s struggles with a small band of mean girls at her new school or in the cacophonous final act that takes an inspired ghoulish depiction of the fiendish fellows who once set upon Sandie and sadly overuses it.
Nearly as clever of a trope twister as current champion Rian Johnson, Wright sets and upends expectations expertly throughout the film, particularly as the final comeuppance looms. There’s a fleeting moment when it seems he’s about to betray his own thesis for a zingy plot turn, but he yanks the wheel into a hairpin instead. It’s the sort of winning choice I’ve come to expect from him. He’s also tremendously generous with his cast, gleefully showcasing the old-pro chops of Terence Stamp, Margaret Nolan, and Diana Rigg (the latter two in their final film roles). If Last Night in Soho is sometimes tripped up by the scope Wright brings to it, the problem is largely forgivable because of that abundance of spirit he brings to the proceedings. Swinging in the sixties had its problems. That’s Wright’s point. Depicting those problems with bracing honesty can still be done with a exuberant love of filmmaking. Even better, there’s a clear sense that the affection is eagerly shared with all involved, including everyone sitting in theater seats taking it all in.