‘Last Night in Soho’ is a childish coming of age story

click to enlarge Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie in Last Night in Soho. - Parisa Taghizadeh/Focus Features
Parisa Taghizadeh/Focus Features
Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie in Last Night in Soho.

"Bad girls go to hell" is the form of false wisdom passed on to far too many children, but for Edgar Wright's Last Night in Soho it seems to be a guiding light. Plying a familiar framework wherein a provincial girl comes to the city to experience the world, then comes of age as a consequence, Wright's film demonstrates with remarkable consistency that it's not matured itself. Attempting to conjure an expressionistic world of mirrors and colored lights while pushing a regressive, storybook morality play, Last Night's mélange of underheated genre influences can't give it the style or sense of understanding or even taste it lacks; it needs an eye for real-world complexity, an actual grown-up's point of view.

Finding sweet but sheltered Eloise, or Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie, conjuring an air of wide-eyed earnestness) as a new fashion student off to school in London, the film tracks the development of her reverential fascination for the Swinging Sixties (her grandmother's record collection is suggested to be what gave her the bug) at first along two fixed paths: day and night. Contrasting her meek response to grade school-style social jockeying at school ("What the actual fuck," her Gen Z peers are obliged to say) in the day with new, escapist trips into Soho's 1960s she has when going to bed each night, the film literalizes its tensions in binary terms. Nightlife undermines and eventually creeps into the world of daytime obligations, dreams that first prove inspiring create distractions from the real (and real boys, quite pointedly), and how could one possibly live fully in both dreams and shared reality, anyway? Never mind that artists, like everybody, do this constantly; the film is keen on portending more than exploring the troubles and contradictions of living a double life. As these demarcations become muddled, and the ink outlining the film's initially tidy rules begins to run, the film begs one of the many questions Twin Peaks already asked better: What if the dream you thought you were living in was actually a nightmare?

For shy Ellie, the night dreams aren't bad, at least at first — for in them she moves not just with confidence but pride, finding new life through a kind of spectral hitchhiking with a dissociative blonde alter-ego named Sandy (see also Hitchcock), played by Anya Taylor-Joy in various mod fits. In these dreams (or are they, etc.), Sandy sets out from Ellie's small apartment to become a nightclub singer somewhere in the district, taking to the stage and dance floor to see which male gatekeepers' attentions she might be able to captivate, given that (at least back then) it was them who ran the shows.

But Ellie's not just a spectator. Swapping places repeatedly with Sandy at night through an effects-based mirror trick that sometimes finds her dancing at packed cabarets in her bedclothes, the dreams are more to Ellie, it's suggested, than an act of voyeurism. They're wholly transporting, so much so that Sandy's joys and problems within them become her own. For a time, this proves invigorating; Ellie bleaches her hair in her daytime life, gets a bartending job, and acts with more confidence in school, finding "inspiration" for her dresses in her nocturnal outings, which she uses as a basis to fastidiously recreate designs. But over time, it turns out, this nightlife has an underbelly, and it features not just drugs, but sex work, and exploitation of women. (No gesture is made, unfortunately, toward indicating those last two aren't reliably the same.) Just maybe, suggests Wright, it wasn't all good back then. Who knew?

With these scenes captured mostly in whirling handheld shots by cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon (previously of Oldboy, It, and The Handmaiden), the technical workmanship would feel impressive were Wright's vision not so threadbare. Attempting to evoke David Lynch, Wright and screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns (previously of 1917) set up pretty things and nostalgic ideals not with any credibly grounded sense of evocation, but instead as bowling pins just asking to be knocked down. Arranging the film's moral universe in tidy rows, Wright and co. seem to lack the gumption — and appetite for risk — to explore any real mysteries they can't specifically account for or control. Anything messy, sexy, too personal, or crass — that would be a liability to excise, even if it might add some actual texture to the work.

This isn't much improved upon when Last Night makes an effort toward complicating its proceedings, whether by letting its day-night realms run together, with visions intruding into real life, or by letting us know that Sandy's life wasn't actually so great once the lights came on. This bleed between spaces just tells us stuff like "nostalgia is a fraught enterprise" or "date someone who will listen" — things that we should all already know, at least on that didactic level. Suffering, too, from a crisis of credibility in both its diurnal depictions (fashion school is drug-free) and in its alternately grim and prettified nocturnal sequences, Last Night is ill-equipped to show either its character or viewer anything much about the realities, internal or external, of real life. Like its "artistic" lead character toiling away at a single fastidiously recreated dress, Last Night is a movie with a lot of fluffed-up gestures and nods to past work — whether Dario Argento's Inferno, Roman Polanski's Repulsion, John Carpenter in places — but not a lot to share itself. It comes as a welcome pivot, then, that the film allows itself to be tugged along by a more plot-based kind of mystery in its second half before, after two long hours, laying itself to rest.

Credibility and lifelike realism aren't what's required here, in any case; some expressive vision is, and in the works Wright nods to, a plot is often little more than an excuse for that. But the filmmakers lack the willingness (I won't say courage) to move into charged transgressive and personal spaces, which might offer some idea of an artist's inner life — at least assuming they have one. Last Night could hardly be less evocative or even observant of its references or its proceedings, offering little more than a shrug as comment on matters of nostalgia. While its mirror tricks look just fine, they can't distract from its inability to pierce beyond the anodyne realities presented in their surfaces, which run no deeper than the chastest and blandest of marketing materials. What's shared here is a self-flattering, broadly sympathetic pose and not much else.

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