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TIFF 2021: Last Night in Soho Review

Edgar Wright’s supernatural mystery, Last Night in Soho, is a neon-soaked love letter to the psychological thrillers of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Wright fans expecting more of the silly antics found in Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim will leave the theatre scratching their heads. Those who enjoy eerie thrillers like Suspiria and Don’t Look Now will feel right at home.

Last Night in Soho stars Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit) as Eloise, a mousey young woman from the English countryside. Eloise is obsessed with the ‘60s. She dresses in retro-style clothing and only listens to pop music from that era. She’s a total hipster, without all the smarmy pretension. You can’t help but root for the character from the moment she first appears on screen. This is an Edgar Wright movie after all, and that man seems to have a cheat code for crafting loveable heroes.

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Eloise wants to pursue a career in fashion, and her dreams seem to come true when she’s accepted into a London fashion school. Eloise heads to the big city and finds the perfect Soho apartment that vibes with her vintage tastes. But something in the apartment triggers Eloise’s psychic abilities when she goes to bed at night. She wakes up to find herself transported back in time to Soho in the late ‘60s. What’s even stranger is that she’s Quantum Leaping into another woman’s body. If you’re going to possess someone, though, you could do a lot worse than Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy). Sandy is a beautiful and charismatic performer who seems to have the world on a string.

At first, Eloise is thrilled to live out her fantasies as a glamorous singer, but it’s not long before seedy elements creep into Sandy’s life. As lustful, domineering men insert themselves into Sandy’s world, her dreams of stardom start slipping away. Suddenly, Sandy’s troubles begin haunting Eloise’s world, forcing her to uncover the dark mystery behind the visions before they drive her insane.

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Psychological thrillers like Last Night in Soho live and die on the strength of their lead performance. So casting knocked it out of the park with Thomasin McKenzie, a true rising star. She’s charming as a wide-eyed young woman enamoured by the big city. And you believe every bit of the character’s confusion and despair as dark forces start to diminish her ebullient spirit.

I wrote casting hit it out of the park, but it’s closer to a grand slam because Taylor-Joy’s casting is also pitch-perfect. The role of Sandy demands an actress with off-the-charts magnetism. The character has to make a powerful impression with minimal screen time and even less character development. Taylor-Joy is as charismatic as they come. She adds compelling dimensions to what could easily have been a one-dimensional character.

Wright has stated that one of the reasons he wanted to make this picture is because he didn’t have a proper “London” movie in his filmography. Wright wanted to do for London what Spike Lee does for New York. Wright’s deep-rooted affection for the city is so palpable that London is practically a character.

Expect to feel the sting of quarantine life as Eloise/Sandy soak up the city. The nightlife sequences recreate an authentic feeling of being out in the world in a way most films don’t capture. I had a blast sitting back and soaking each vivid detail.

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Cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa’s work is nothing short of dazzling. Last Night in Soho is a flashy film, but it’s the little details that impressed me most; like how the golden light off of marquees reflect off fleets of freshly polished cars. It’s those blink and you’ll miss it flourishes that will keep me coming back to this gorgeous movie again and again.

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Wright rose to fame writing and directing some of this generation’s best comedies, but please don’t think this man is a one-trick pony. He’s a cinematic savant with a masterful comprehension of cinematic language. Pay attention to how he uses genre movie conventions – psychic powers, time travel, the afterlife – to comment on the insidious nature of emotional and physical violence.

Last Night in Soho literalizes the notion that acts of violence don’t happen in a vacuum. The pain that ravaged Sandy in the ‘60s still lingers to haunt young women like Eloise. It’s a statement on how trauma reverberates out into the world, spreading a legacy of pain like a virus, infecting relationships, families, and even entire communities.

From top to bottom, this movie kicks ass. But I wonder whether people will appreciate what Wright is trying to do here. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And Wright is recreating an unusual style of film, beat for beat.

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Psychological thrillers tend to tell slow-burn stories with a deliberate style of pacing. The terror comes from the protagonist’s inability to make sense of what’s happening around them. They slowly spiral out of control while succumbing to forces they don’t understand. These movies are less about an escalating series of shocks than forcing the audience to sit and stew in their mounting dread. These tales are all about feeding your anticipation and then walloping you with a mind-bending climax that shakes you to the core.

Old-school psychological thrillers have a different rhythm than modern audiences are used to. Last Night in Soho features plenty of jump scares and lots of disturbing images, but it’s still a movie that requires patience. And as we all know, patience is in short supply in 2021.

The J.J. Abrams era of mystery-box storytelling has conditioned viewers to hone in on a plot’s superfluous details. What happened to Eloise’s mother and the nature of her psychic gifts don’t matter a lick. Wright is paying homage to a style of movie that doesn’t work if you overthink it. A proper Giallo flick revels in madness, melodrama and gaudy aesthetics. Last Night in Soho delivers on all three, and then some.

Follow That Shelf for our latest coverage including reviews, interviews and more, live from TIFF – and join in on the conversation on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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