Last Night in Soho starts as the least “Edgar Wright” movie Edgar Wright has ever made. The director best known for his unique visual flair, perfect employment of sound, and creative premises to explore on film begins this movie in the most run-of-the-mill way imaginable. There’s almost a surreal quality to it, sort of in the way Mulholland Drive opens with Betty saying goodbye before heading off the Los Angeles; the kitschiness of it feels intentionally over the top, and the inciting incident and plot developments that lead us through the very paint-by-numbers first act feels too low key and, dare I say, “boring” for a director who has never made a movie that could be so derided.
If you want a review in twenty words or less, here’s this:
I won’t say the movie blew me away, but by the end I appreciated it. I certainly didn’t at first.
Whether intentionally or not, director Wright almost lulled me to a false feeling of boredom during the film’s opening act, where the main character Eloise goes through all the cliches found in every movie that features a small town girl venturing to the big city. You have the obligatory farewell to her elderly caretaker, followed by the disorienting entry into the aforementioned big city, where she starts to feel overwhelmed and beaten down by how oppressive and unforgiving it is, followed by her having to deal with catty, backstabbing women, to finally discovering a place that looks like the answer to her prayers which, as you might guess, ends up being the source of her horror.
The film’s first act is so rote and flat I was wondering if it was a movie by the same Edgar Wright who made some of my favorite films and some of the most visually and audibly inventive movies of the past twenty years (particularly Scott Pilgrim vs The World, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, and Baby Driver). The more I think about it, however, the more I’m convinced the movie’s start was intentionally dry. For one thing, the sound—always a major point of emphasis in a Wright movie—was reduced to a monaural (center) track only from the opening until Eloise enters London. At that point, it switches to a traditional Dolby 7.1 Surround Sound. It wasn’t something I noticed at first but after it was pointed out, it makes sense; Wright was subconsciously leading me to feel like something was missing in the opening minutes of the movie. Indeed something was: six sound channels!
There was also the brief vision Eloise has of her mother, appearing to her in her bedroom mirror. What might, in other horror movies, be used early on as a cheap scare is, here, played straight, without any jump cut or sound cue to cause the audience to shriek. It’s played as some sort of psychic ability the main character has (the circumstances of which are not elaborated on, nor does the movie stop to explain itself to the audience’s boredom). Eloise’s special gift will certainly come into play as the movie progresses (it’s the central reason she has the horrific experiences she does), but it’s introduced to us in a safe, banal way. Again, it’s intentionally bland.
It’s not until the first act is out of the way that Wright’s trademark style is really allowed to cut loose.
That’s not to say the movie’s perceived faults and weaknesses disappear, however. In terms of the mystery plot (and how it’s presented) at the core of the story, there are two aspects to consider, one that worked and another that didn’t.
First, there’s the gimmick: Eloise’s psychic ability allows her to sort of see through the eyes of a 1960s nightclub wannabe entertainer, simply named “Sandie.” I say she “sort of” see through her eyes because, in point of fact, Eloise moves in and out of occupying the same space as Sandie (getting a hickey in real life when Sandie gets one in the 1960s), as well as being a third party observer, able to see what happens to Sandie without being able to speak or help her in any way. The rules are very loose and while Wright may have it all worked out in his head, it didn’t translate to the screen, but I also wasn’t bothered by it: The film works best as something experienced, not thought-out. Overall, the way Eloise and Sandie share the 1960s experience is the best part of the movie; it allows for some delightful camera tricks and editing magic, as things sometimes move seamlessly from one actress to the next. It’s also a joy both to look at and listen to (suckers of 60s fashion and music will love it).
The other aspect, though, is the actual mystery story that drives the plot. Unfortunately, this is the film’s great downfall: Without getting into spoilers I will only say that the plot itself is pretty basic and while it has its fair share of twists and turns, half the reveals are fairly easily guessed (or, at the very least, it’s not hard to surmise that some sort of a twist is coming), and the rest of the reveals don’t really pack much of a punch…until the very end, at least.
What saves the movie is the acting, directing, and pacing, which starts slow (almost too slow) then slowly ramps up more and more until it’s screaming by the end. I left the movie satisfied, but not blown away.
8/10 – Last Night in Soho won’t be regarded among Wright’s best, but it’s a stylish and fresh entry to the horror genre, and as a fan of said genre (and of the director) I’m glad to have it.