In fiction, dream sequences can often be used as a crutch to further the narrative, showing us inside a character’s mind, opening the door to his or her past traumas or insecurities, subconsciousness or otherwise, without having to figure out a clever way to convey those same layers in a plausible reality. Occasionally, however, dreams can be used to genuinely advance the plot, such as in A Nightmare on Elm Street or Inception, where the very idea of the sleep realm is crucial to the film’s existence.
Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho makes a case for the necessity of dreams to its premise, but undermines its own stipulations by eliminating that necessity. Our main character, Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), relocates to London for fashion school, but after moving off campus to a boarding house to escape her catty roommate, she gets haunted by the spirit of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), an old aspiring lounge singer from the 1960s.
Early on, Eloise meets up with Sandie in her dreams, and it’s unclear if the singer can see our protagonist or not, which serves as inadvertent tension, although it’s hinted that she can. But after the halfway point, images of Sandie and the slew of men who exploited her for her aspirations begin creeping into Eloise’s real life and crippling her ability to do literally anything normal. And so this nighttime premise turns into an unbridled chaos where nothing is tethered.
It should also be noted that Eloise’s mother was schizophrenic and committed suicide when Eloise was a young girl. But for some reason Wright never fully allows his film to sit in the mystery of whether or not her visions are real haunts or simply her own mental illness starting to manifest itself – and even when he does, it never really matters.
Early on, the director refreshingly refuses to commit to a genre, or even a tone, blending ideas and aesthetics from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, and several Roman Polanski paranoia flicks. By the second act, however, Last Night in Soho devolves into full-on horror, confusing the audience with its lack of rules or guidelines, and tiring them out with a lot of monotonous running and screaming.
For Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 film Grindhouse Wright created a fake movie trailer, “Don’t”, where he mocked traditional horror tropes. It’s obvious the director has an awareness and even a resentment towards these boilerplates, but alas, here he proves why those tropes should actually exist in certain instances. The horror elements of Last Night in Soho are hardly inventive, if not irritatingly bloated and unscary.
The events of the dreamworld and these wideawake delusions are seldom shown from the perspectives of those not experiencing it. The audience is constantly suffocating under a strict perspective from Eloise, when even in Elm Street and Inception, we’re given a point of view of outsiders observing the affected protagonist going through their travails.
Elsewhere, the director surprisingly leans on personality archetypes for his characters. Whether it be the old school “mean girls” that torment Eloise or the slimy, unattractive businessmen who hit on Sandie (and the one good-looking guy who actually tries to save her), it seems every inch of this film is steeped in some level of banality whilst trying to do something different plot-wise. Perhaps in becoming nostalgic himself with a more personal project, the director felt the need to romanticize these character clichés and use them exclusively to tell his story. But in doing so, he loses a lot of the magic that this type of premise could have offered.
Wright was inspired to make the film from his own parents’ coming-of-age in the 1960s and wanted to show both the escape that nostalgia can provide and the oft-seedy realities that tend to become buried with the past. Yet, Last Night in Soho abandons these motifs on wistfulness for a psychological journey that’s neither here nor there, never once capitalizing on the disillusionment potentially felt by someone in a unique scenario where she’s actually travelling through time.
The paranoia at hand is so amplified it drowns out any nuance that could have been found underneath. The result is a filmmaker who winds up saying less about the actual complexities of nostalgia than he does about his own unrealized conflicting emotions on the very matter.
Where his previous movies have pushed the boundaries of car chases, fused video games with cinema, and redefined the horror-comedy, Last Night in Soho sees Wright at his most bare bones, believe it or not, despite an initially kaleidoscopic concept. Other than some clever camerawork involving mirrors, he doesn’t live up to his own stylish bar and certainly doesn’t push many boundaries.
There are moments of brilliance, such as the promising introduction to this dreamworld escape or the chilling climax that answers most of our questions (while simultaneously making us realize there weren’t too many of them to begin with). And those beautiful neon colors, well embodied in the movie’s poster, with reds and greens and blues blinking as Eloise drifts off to sleep each night. It’s surface-level, but one of the more defined takeaways.
Luckily, the director also finds energy from his ‘60s soundtrack, filled with deep cuts from The Who or acts who never made any waves in the States, such as Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich (that’s all one band, also coincidentally referenced in Grindhouse) who sings the title track. There’s also found money in his actors, who each give really solid performances, albeit in largely forgettable roles.
Early promises of hypnotic dream immersion get forsaken for distorted in-movie logic by a director who similarly can’t ground himself in reality either. Unwilling to mimic the dirt and grime of the filmmakers he’s aspiring to be from decades ago, Wright isn’t really the man for the job, and this movie can’t separate itself enough from the current era it’s living in to become properly unsettling and as dangerous as it wants to be.
I’d hate to say Last Night in Soho exposes some of the flaws in Wright’s previous work; moments that have always grated on me as disingenuously gimmicky more than ingeniously inspired – thematic oversights and the sheer failure to recognize anything more cerebral or authentically symbolic – but it certainly feels like that’s the case. Or maybe this is just too personal for Wright that it’s caused him to act on his own impulses rather than on his need to impress. Whatever the case, this is easily his worst outing yet.