Nostalgia is a bitter pill to swallow. Far too often, whenever we paint a portrait of the past, it’s very much an idealized vision: only the glitz and the glamour and never the harsh realities. Edgar Wright’s latest film, Last Night in Soho – and, indeed, his whole filmography – feels like the director is trying to grapple with this notion that we often forget how dangerous and seductive it can be to romanticize the past. But, unfortunately, this time out, Wright might’ve done well to heed his own advice.
Soho follows an aspiring designer, Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie), who gets the chance of a lifetime after being accepted into a fashion school in the heart of London. The move from the country to the big city is daunting, but Ellie finds comfort in a series of strange occurrences in her rented flat in Soho. Every night, she is transported to the 1960s, inhabiting the body of a gorgeous woman named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), who has aspirations of her own. But, while Ellie finds these nightly visions enchanting at first, the more she learns of Sandie’s story, the more frightening truths and disturbing acts come into the light — and the nightmares seem to follow her into the waking hour.
Edgar Wright clearly loves the movies. Every single production he’s worked on feels tied together by echoes of cinema’s past, often drawing from some very niche corners of film history. Perhaps his most successful efforts lie within his trademark Cornetto Trilogy, comprised of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End. These films display his vast knowledge of the genre, as he often presents a seemingly archetypal narrative before playfully taking it down another avenue entirely against audience expectation. With these, Wright has given us a guidebook on how to understand his film language – he deconstructs his inspirations before reconstructing them into something that stays in the wheelhouse while simultaneously going against the grain.
But Wright has gone against the expectations he’s set for himself as a genre filmmaker, seemingly unwriting the guidebook with his most recent efforts, Baby Driver and Last Night in Soho. Both films are straightforward works of the genre, always threatening to burst out of their confines but never entirely straying from the safety of well-established tropes. It’s to Wright’s credit that his skill as a technical filmmaker has evolved considerably; Baby Driver can mostly get by as a simple genre exercise gussied up by some tight editing. Soho also has flashes of this steady-handed filmmaking, though not quite to the same extent, as it often gets buried under the weight of its influences. Like his protagonist Ellie, Wright has fallen for the nostalgia trap, enamored by his inspirations but never making a conscious effort to evolve what’s already come before.
What is Last Night in Soho? Is it a time-traveling murder mystery or a ghostly horror film about the past? Both of these avenues could’ve worked, alone or together. But the script never commits to one lane or the other, ultimately failing to drum up much of an intriguing mystery. Nor does it make it understood why Ellie might be the conduit for all this supernatural activity. Instead, the film tries to literally put her in Sandie’s shoes, as Ellie inhabits Sandie’s body during the dreamy flashbacks to the past. Visually, there’s a mirror motif wherein Ellie sees Sandie in place of her reflection, perhaps to illustrate how similar these two women are. But the connections are primarily surface-level – both women are ambitious, and their ambitions lie within the arts. Moreover, both ladies find themselves lost amidst a lonely city that’s all too happy to use and abuse young women. Otherwise, the only real reason the film gives for Ellie’s tether to Sandie’s ghost is because of her ability to see her dead mother, which is hardly explained and feels too clumsily on the nose to be a metaphor for anything.
Unlike his previous films, which would’ve used clear homages as both a starting point and a cleverly deceptive trap to lure the audience into a false sense of security, Soho seems unable to feel like anything more than a love letter to the past. Wright also wants to tell us this love letter should immediately be burned, as the film simultaneously insists that we should never idolize the past. Indeed, all those early passages where Ellie runs through 1960s Soho, eyes alight with wonder and understandably drawn to Sandie’s allure, feel like Wright is setting things up to come crashing down, especially when we see the truth behind Sandie’s career. But the slide into darker territory, essentially reasoning that our admiration of yesteryear risks us hiding its atrocities, never amounts to anything more profound than Wright saying, “it’s not good to live in the past.” But while Wright says that living in the past is wasteful, he also does little to disguise Soho‘s profound love for the films from the past as anything significant. In that way, Soho is nothing without its homages to its much better cinematic influences.
There’s a swirl of other thematic materials here, too – but no matter how hard the film shakes the bottle, these ingredients refuse to stick together. As a result, every contradiction feels more like incoherence than deliberate ambiguity on Wright’s part. Perhaps the only thematic element that works is the film’s assertion that men’s psychic scars of violence (both physical and sexual) enacted toward women are deeply felt and understood by all women. This thread informs the film’s twist, which should’ve been an excellent opportunity for Wright to finally pull the rug out from under our feet and reveal us as complicit audience members. Instead, the third act reveal mostly comes across as expected and takes the film down an unfortunately melodramatic route that sacrifices dramatic potency for surface-level emotions.
The film is not bad so much as it is middling. Unfortunately, Wright never breaks out of the expected, so while the film might be well made, all its best assets are faint echoes taken from better films of the past. Hopefully, the next project from Wright is a return to his past and not that of other filmmakers. But if he keeps indulging in simple, empty genre exercise, it could very well be that Edgar Wright has left his best days behind him at the World’s End pub.