Edgar Wright has already given us one cinematic triumph this year in the form of the fantastic music documentary, The Sparks Brothers, which at times served as a distillation of his expertise in crafting movies around a catalog soundtrack. Truly there are few filmmakers out there able to make a narrative work hand-in-hand with era-appropriate music. Robert Zemeckis did it in Forrest Gump, and Kevin Smith is really the only American director who has come close to the consistency and deftness with which Wright is able to weave a soundtrack into a story. From Shaun of the Dead to Baby Driver, the man has shown how essential music can be to making a great movie.
With Last Night in Soho, Wright has delivered again on both fronts. Not only is this another absolute winner of a film – his second this year – but it’s another testament to his skill in orchestrating a compelling tale from a purely audio standpoint. More importantly, though, like many of his previous films, Wright spins yet another entertaining yarn by playing with the conventions of genre in ways that break new ground while also sneakily giving audiences a profound look at real-world issues.
The film stars Thomasin McKenzie as Ellie Turner, a fashion student from the English countryside who’s been accepted to study in London. Orphaned by her mother’s suicide (she still sees visions of her mom in her bedroom mirror), Ellie has a fondness for the music and style of the 1960s, having been raised by her grandmother (Rita Tushingham). After a rather large culture shock in her dorm, meeting her hard-partying flatmates, she decides to take a room upstairs in a house owned by an elderly woman named Alexandra (the late Diana Rigg in her final performance; the film is dedicated in her memory), who shares her affinity for the “Swinging Sixties.”
Once moved into the new place, Ellie has dreams about a young blonde woman named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy in a nomination-worthy performance), a bon vivant of the Soho scene, and an aspiring singer. With her chic pink dress and confidence to spare, Sandie charms her way through a dance club looking for her shot at stardom when she meets Jack (the 11th Doctor himself, Matt Smith, being delightfully slimy), who agrees to be her manager as they begin a torrid affair. Ellie begins emulating her simulacrum heroine in both style and substance, coming out of her proverbial shell and excelling in her studies.
However, after a while the dreams become darker, with Jack quickly turning from supportive talent manager to loutish pimp, Sadie’s ambitions turning to nihilistic cynicism, and a string of violence ending in murder. To make matters worse, when Ellie takes a job at a local pub, one of the older patrons, played by Terence Stamp, seems to be stalking her, and appears to have known Sandie. This leads Ellie to experience severe anxieties, ghostly visions, and a drive to solve the mystery of Sandie’s fate.
All of this is masterfully set to a 60s catalog featuring the likes of Cilla Black, Dusty Springfield, Sandie Shaw, and the Kinks. There’s also a clever reference to Barry Ryan’s “Eloise,” which separates the fanatics from the casual viewers depending on who picks it up before the relevance is revealed. In one of Sandie’s auditions, Anya Taylor-Joy herself sings an a capella cover of Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” one of the most iconic songs of the decade. Finally, in what’s my favorite touch of the film, Wright uses James Ray’s original version of “Got My Mind Set on You,” which I used to play on repeat opposite George Harrison’s cover during my college years (Harrison died when I was a sophomore, so it was kind of a coping mechanism). Like I said, Edgar Wright is a cinematic maestro.
But what really makes this movie shine, apart from the stellar performances, is the editing and the use of mirrors and glass. Ellie’s dreams about Sandie are absolutely perfect bits of choreography and camera trickery. It starts out normally enough, with Ellie seeing Sandie’s reflection looking back at her in the mirror. It’s a fun effect, but nothing new, though it helps to establish the spiritual link between the two. But from that simple bit of staging, the concept gets taken to gorgeous new levels of playful design, as the pair switches places depending on the needs of the scene or the whims of the lens. As Sandie walks down an elegant staircase, Ellie is on the other side of the mirrored wall, in lockstep, just behind the glass. A swing of Matt Smith’s arm can serve as a wipe between our two leads in an expert combination of blocking and quick-cut editing.
It works to incredible effect as a visual, but it also eases the audience into the shared metaphor that drives the psychological horror. While initially Ellie’s insecurities are presented as her just being an overwhelmed college student who’s not used to living in the big city, the real fear comes from the lack of a support system and the terror that nearly all women face at one point or another in their lives, that of being oversexualized and targeted for assault. As a society, we’re finally having a reckoning on this issue, but it still goes on, and it certainly was in full force during the 60s, where even the most fantastic success stories for some women meant “sleeping their way to the top.”
The horror isn’t just in the paranoia of being attacked, but the inability to seek solace and justice once it’s been done. There’s a poignant scene where Ellie tells the police about her visions, and of course the male detectives mock her within earshot from the bathroom. And on its face, the story is absurd, because she’s describing something supernatural that can’t be proven. But in the midst of that shame, there is a female detective assuring her that she did the right thing, and who is willing to at least do some diligence to investigate the situation and put her mind at ease, even if it comes to nothing. Contrast that with a mirroring scene (there it is again) in Ellie’s dreams of Sandie, where one of her prospective Johns offers to protect her, as he’s an undercover vice cop. Sandie just brushes him off as another abuser, because she’s become so jaded and resigned to the fact that no one will help her that she can’t even take an offer of assistance at face value.
The assault is just the beginning. The lasting scare is about the destruction of a person as a result of it. Sandie wanted to be a singer, yet her confidence and talent were thrown away as she was turned into essentially a prostitute. Ellie isn’t anti-sexual, but she makes it clear she doesn’t want to be defined by her sexuality, because she sees from Sandie’s example where that road leads, and we in the audience know from just watching the news where it goes even in the real world of the here and now. She wants to make sure her talent comes first, and it’s shown throughout the movie, from her homemade dresses to her classroom designs that – gasp – look like things people would actually want to wear in public (take note, Cruella and House of Gucci).
It’s fitting then that Wright has McKenzie and Taylor-Joy in his cast. Both of these young actresses are undeniably beautiful, but they’ve also proven themselves as top-level performers independent of their looks. They’ve even acquitted themselves within the horror genre, with the former starring in The Witch, Split, and Glass and the latter showing off her creepshow chops earlier this year in Old. Honestly it makes the few moments towards the end where Ellie is nearly reduced to “scream queen” status with ghosts chasing her a tad lacking compared to the rest of the picture, because we know she’s so much better than that. Still, it’s to the film’s massive credit that we have these two immensely committed leads, because they show that despite the visual feast that Wright presents, they’re so good at what they do that they could make this story compelling literally sight unseen, which serves their characterization more than anyone could expect.
The twists and turns of the plot are fairly predictable, but that doesn’t mean the story suffers under its own weight. There are still surprises to be had as Wright gleefully plays with genre conventions, from a “rule-of-three” style runner with taxis, to the decaying makeup job on Ellie as she falls deeper into her own terror, to some truly excellent use of blue and red lighting, to the fate of the normally doomed love interest character played by Michael Ajao.
This movie is a perfect example of why Edgar Wright is one of our generation’s greatest filmmakers. He knows how to key into his audience with gripping visuals and perfectly selected music. He knows how to turn your expectations upside down with just the right amount of subversion. And even when the proceedings come dangerously close to drifting into cliché territory, he knows how to construct a worthy payoff, whether it’s something as simple as two people misunderstanding a reference to “Kylie” as a mononym to refer to “Minogue” (artist, musician, philanthropist) vs. “Jenner” (human garbage) or something as complex as a treatise on the lasting trauma from exploitation. You never know what’s coming next, which is always crucial to a great story.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite use of catalog music in a movie? Do you have a special liking for a certain era of culture? Let me know!