Universal (2021) 116 min. R
Director: Edgar Wright
Screenplay: Edgar Wright & Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Cinematography: Chung-hoon Chung; Editing: Paul Machliss; Score: Steven Price
Stars: Thomasin McKenzie (Ellie Turner), Anya Taylor-Joy (Sandie), Matt Smith (Jack), Michael Ajao (John), Synnøve Karlsen (Jocasta), Diana Rigg (Ms. Collins), Terence Stamp (Lindsay), Rita Tushingham (Margaret “Peggy” Turner), Sam Claflin (Punter #5), Margaret Nolan (sage barmaid), Aimeé Cassettari (Ellie’s mother), James and Oliver Phelps (cloakroom attendants)Last Night in Soho arrived forearmed with so much advance publicity, saturation coverage courtesy of its promotional campaign, I was sick of hearing about it before I ever saw it. So, it’s surprising none of the well-placed ads successfully captured the spirit of the thing. The movie actually turns out to be an enjoyable sugar rush, a spooky, Halloween season confection that wonderfully appeals to viewers’ most tactile senses of touch, capturing the look and, more importantly, the feel of felts and fabrics, and at just the right time, when we’re all unduly preoccupied with finding the perfect costume.
It’s all about the textiles, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. So, one practically needs to be restrained from reaching out and stroking it. Rarely has a thriller seemed so chi-chi. With its excessively stylish clothes, sets, cinematography and mood lighting, even when Last Night in Soho begins becoming dreadfully cliched near the end, we couldn’t care less, because it still remains so lovely to look at. English director Edgar Wright, best known for his action scenes, intentionally seduces us with the lushly flowing imagery, the softness of all the fluffy tulles, silks, chiffon and cardigans, to lull us into a cozy sense of security. He’s softening us up, priming us for the heart-racing palpitations to come, against which we’ll find ourselves defenseless. It’s only after the fact, that viewers can appreciate how expertly they’d been tenderized. Like many a young up-and-comer, most notably perhaps Brian de Palma, back in the day, he’s experimenting with his range, trying to expand his capabilities by measuring himself against the master of suspense. Apt enough, since his well-tailored film frequently feels like a revisionist Vertigo. Last Night in Soho concerns Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie), a mousy young aspiring fashion designer from the provinces with second sight, who finds herself becoming obsessed with the past life of chic chanteuse Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), who lived in the same London apartment back in the swinging sixties. As Ellie begins dressing and behaving more and more like the other girl, she discovers Sandie may have met her messy end at the hands of a Jack the Ripper type. Wright has slowed his directorial pace after completing that Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, in order to commit himself to the artistic process, devoting more time to carefully detailing each new film. Apart from a documentary, The Sparks Brothers, Wright’s most recent movie was 2017’s visually whizzy, tautly edited Baby Driver, which played off the same sort of superficial preconceptions Last Night in Soho does, concerning innocence and corruption. In the earlier film, baby-faced Ansel Elgort was cast as an unlikely getaway driver. Similarly, here, ones preconceived notions of sweetness and virtue, based on the imagery were shown, sour as the story wears on, and our implicit biases concerning who’s who and what’s what, are slowly stripped away from us, while the dreamy ballads and pop songs of the day comment on the action, like a lilting Greek chorus.Last Night in Soho is Wright’s most visually stylish movie to date, eye-poppingly unapologetic in its fetishization of the mod era, even while the latest James Bond vehicle No Time to Die, is still playing in theaters right alongside it. The movie is possessed of a svelte, velvety visual style that soaks in the look of a swinging sixties that never really was. It’s a pop cultural commemoration of things past, drawn more from movies and airbrushed magazine ads of the era. Everything has been overdrawn just a tad too much, the way it was in Absolute Beginners (1986). The entire film has been designed around its flashbacks to the sixties, the picture’s main selling point.But they’re so ersatz, we, like Ellie, can’t tell at first if we’re supposed to accept them as reality, or vivid pop fantasies, cooked up in her imagination, considering how fixated she is on the era. And Wright never makes a clear enough distinction that the sixties we see is the era as she believes it to have been, as opposed to the sixties as they actually were. Not even as she begins to draw back the curtain of Sandie’s life, discovering that the past wasn’t as perfect as appearances might have suggested. Nor even at the end, when the veil is completely torn from Ellie’s eyes and it all becomes clear to her.Last Night in Soho represents one of the most all-inclusive uses of costuming seen in any other movie this year, Cruella and House of Gucci excepted. The entire look and feel of the film takes on a smoothed out sleekness that bespeaks of a complete amalgamation of the designer’s art, the closest of collaborations between costumier Odile Dicks-Mireaux and production designer Marcus Rowland. Beginning with that brilliant mermaid gown Ellie somehow stitched together from newspapers.It can’t be the most comfortable thing in the world to wear. But, like all architectural gowns, it looks great from a strictly objective standpoint. The movie’s main subtextual motivation seems to be to revel in the retro prints and mod fashions, whether trendy white plastic raincoats, pink baby doll dresses, micro minis, bouffants or the men, with their slicked back ducktails and contoured ties. And no model ever made a more glorious wire hanger than the slender, sylphlike Anya Taylor- Joy. Although it’s never spoken, it’s the women’s shared taste in fashion that binds them, proving the loose astral thread linking them through time. Ellie designs fashions, where Sandie expertly models them, a perfectly symbiotic relationship. Only the power of Prada could compel them, as there seems no other particular reason for Ellie to be drawn into Sandie’s past, revisiting her former haunts, her life intersecting with that of this glamorous model, who resembles the Julie Christie from Petulia and Darling. Or maybe more on point, the Catherine Deneuve of Roman Polanski’s swinging London-set, Hitchcock homage Repulsion.
Last Night in Soho comes complete with Terence Stamp, siphoned straight out of the sixties, when his personal brand of icy cool, blue-eyed blond beauty was at its trendiest. He spends his time skulking about in the shadows like the most portentous of harbingers, with wild white hair and a surly demeanor. And appearing, resplendently, as Ellie’s gram, is Rita Tushingham, whose A Taste of Honey helped usher in the British new wave of kitchen sink drama in the early sixties. But the cherry on top is, of course, Diana Rigg, as Ellie’s crotchety landlady. In her final screen appearance, Rigg had one of the more substantial parts she’d ever been given on the big screen. And the shrewd use of such icons of the era somehow convincingly grounds the movie in the same cinematic past we associate them with, tapping into viewers own sense of nostalgia. So, it makes special sense that Ellie’s new look, once she gets her Georgy Girl makeover, would derive undue recognition from people who not only lived through that era, but helped define it.
As trusty as an old timepiece, movies generally begin becoming nostalgic for the way things used to be every twenty years or so. Like emerging cicadas, the new generation of Hollywood power brokers, having ascended to the front offices, begin yearning for their own lost youths. And want to see it reflected on screen. We went through a spate of retro-Spielbergian nostalgia a few years back, with Super 8, Let Me In, Stranger Things, etc., even though the man’s still actively making movies. But Soho is set so far back, it raises itself out of the same niche as these other derivations. It seems refreshing, something quite separate and apart from these more modern nostalgia pieces. Though like most thrillers, it has the vibes and thematic elements of many similar movies of the type. So much so that it’s timeslip seems to be showing.The premise sounds like Suspiria, with a fish-out-of-water new student arriving at the London College of Fashion, and her appearance quickly attended by odd and inexplicable happenings. But though the movie recalls many other old, familiar films we’ve seen before, it doesn’t really feel derivative. Instead, its familiarity tends to help feed into our own nostalgia for the past, at least for those of us who are taken with movies from that time period (i.e., film nerds and old movie lovers). Director Wright, along with co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, have stitched this movie together so seamlessly, from the spare swatches of others, we don’t much mind the mix and match patchwork. Last Night in Soho’s main inspiration is, as mentioned, clearly Hitchcock. It’s moody lighting and use of a throbbing color palette, with the soft emerald glow of the Irish pub, pulsating purples and fuchsias for passionate highlights, and blues and reds that more seem to shriek neon lit action thriller from the ‘80s or ‘90s, is brilliantly on point. The segue of identities from brunette to blond and back again, owes a clear debt to Vertigo, while the apartment foyer has somehow morphed into the house from Psycho by the end (or at least cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon has been instructed to shoot it from identical angles). It’s a proper setting for a rearisen, knife-wielding Mrs. Bates. Though her fiery finish might itself speak more of Hitchcock’s Mrs. Danvers, at the end of Rebecca.Certainly, the shrieking violin chords preceding the first record Ellie puts on the player at her new place, can’t be mistaken. But there’s also elements of time travel films like Back to the Future, where characters blast into the past to try to set things right with their lives, or correct events for others. And, of course, Somewhere in Time, with its sad sense of being born out of synch, and willing oneself back to the era one feels they belong in. Of more modern vintage, the irreverent way it approaches the subject might bespeak more of movies like Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. There’s even the eleventh Dr. Who (Matt Smith) on hand, and only bereft of that time traveling elevator to slip back and forth between these parallel dimensions. New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie’s tremulous accent sounds so ambiguous, it fits England, the same way it seemed to fit her German Jew in Jojo Rabbit, and the flat, American mid-west in Leave No Trace. She sounds to be chirping when she talks, through tinkling metallic chimes. Suffering from the second sight, suggested by those eyeball garnishes floating in her spiked Halloween drink, Ellie seems haunted long before she starts getting spooked, and the movie begins trying too hard to justify its designation as a fright flick. She already appears part wraith in or out of the walking dead guise she dons for Halloween. The ideal emo, she wispily wafts between the geolocation points of past and present, neither here nor there. So, she never seems more herself, more at home, than on October 31st, when the veil between the living and dead is at its weakest. Chancing to live on her own for the first time in the same big city that destroyed her mother, taking such a toll she took her own life, Ellie fears she may succumb to the same sickness, forcing her to crawl back home. Especially the way London is presented here, from Ellie’s first creepy cab ride onward, as not safe for any girl to walk the streets alone.But like Jennifer Jason Leigh in Heart of Midnight, she proves more resilient than she initially suspected. She faces down and conquers her demons, rather than letting herself be broken by the pain of her past. Still, she freaks out so frequently, and seemingly inexplicably, around the fellow fashion student she’s dating, we can’t fathom why he continues pursuing his interest in her. Especially after she spazzes out and nearly gets him locked up on sexual assault charges, without even bothering to apologize afterwards. And the movie doesn’t bother to stop and consider the consequences of this. A sheltered girl from the provinces, in woolly homespuns that give her the look of a Victorian school marm, she seems as out of sorts among her school’s future fashionistas and influencers of tomorrow, as Stephen Kings Carrie did. As her dormmate warily states, “I’m getting definite, born again Christian vibes.” Yet in her ‘sharing’ of identities with the dead girl Sandie, Ellie may more suggest the Spacek of Altman’s Three Women. Like Shelly Duvall’s vapid chatterbox in that film, initially, Sandie, the woman Ellie is so fascinated by, and begins to ‘merge’ with, Persona-style, seems to have no serviceable personality apart from her fiery ambition. She’s more than willing to use people as steppingstones in her climb from hat check girl to celebrated singing sensation. Physically, Anya Taylor-Joy makes an ideal dream girl, but she just seems a blank mannequin at first, like the ones at Ellie’s fashion school the students employ to hang their designs on. And though Anya Taylor-Joy never gets to fully flesh out this character, she does at least begin to assume more human dimensions, as we follow her path of degradation. Manipulated, like a puppet on a string by the man who promised to make her a star, she’s finds herself being sexually exploited in the cruelest manner possible.Here, the idea of losing oneself in another person’s identity feels more fun than frightening, at least at first, as Ellie, with her beehives and falls, begins living out her wild, wish fulfillment fantasies in her dreamlife, where she experiences Sandie’s past. And keeps unconsciously slipping into the most swinging sixties slang in her waking one. As she confesses, “There’s just something about the sixties that speaks to me.” Ellie confirms that if she could live at any time, it would be then, London during the Mod era, which she believes must have felt like the ‘center of the universe,’ what with the Beatles and James Bond and everything.
Asked if she’s present while the teacher takes attendance on the first day of class, we see that the ‘present’ is the last thing in the world Ellie seems to be existing in. Untethered from time as she is, she freely slips in and out of her visions, which seem more vivid to her than the here and now. So, it’s no surprise she finds the ‘old fashioned’ apartment she rents, haunted by its ‘memories,’ far more appealing than the sleek, modern dorms of her college. As Ellie makes herself over into the image of her dream girl, the vintage frocks Sandie sports, begin to influence her art as well. The same way a lifetime of cinematic influences have impressed themselves on the director’s own excessive excursion into style here. Allowing Ellie to creatively blossom. Just like her mother is said to have done before her, Ellie copies the fashions she can’t afford to buy. Like the haute couture knockoffs retailers begin to mass produce the day after a red-carpet gala, at marked down steals. So, it doesn’t seem such a stretch when she goes the additional distance, and starts copying the look of the woman she takes as her muse, with the same fanatical fervor Jennifer Jason Leigh did with Brigitte Fonda in Single White Female. It’s understandable that this unformed girl, without a mother, would latch on to Sandie as role model and mentor. But, it’s never explained quite why Sandie appears to quizzically take the place of her mother’s ghost, who Ellie used to see reflected in the mirror.Ellie doesn’t simply admire Sandie; she wants to walk like her and look like her, to be her. Which becomes problematic, if living that same glamorous sort of life means she’s fated to meet an identical end. But in empires like fashion and the movies, built upon superficial surface appearances, it would seem to make perfect sense that unformed, plain jane Ellie would so admire the gorgeous Sandie, whose shimmeringly ‘perfect’ outward appearance looks so ideal on the face of it. At least until Ellie begins to get under her skin, and discovers the truth. Curiously the more Ellie begins emulating this swinging sixties good time girl, the more like those shallow roommates she’d earlier fled, she seems to become. Which I’m thinking couldn’t have been the point, when she was just meant to be seen as becoming more self-assertive and confident within herself. Just as Ellie tries to wish herself back to the sixties, like Tobey McGuire in Pleasantville, to escape her unhappy present life, the girl in her dream takes on different identities to suit the endless parade of men she’s pimped out to. During these scenes, Taylor-Joy seems to be sampling the schizo who abducted her in Split, clearly fantasizing that she’s the actress she set out to be. As she rationalizes, “Being a whore’s a bit like being an actress, I suppose. Pretend you’re someone else… pretend this was happening to someone else.” Same as Ellie begins to take on Sandie’s identity, Sandie herself adopts different personas, stretching her acting skills, like Jane Fonda in Klute. But while she goes by a different procession of names, the actress herself isn’t given the opportunity to display her own range, by demonstrating for us these different personalities. So viewers are never permitted to put a face to her new names.Moreover, despite the seguing of identities between the two women, there’s not much rhyme or reason as to why the director will have one actress, or the other appear in frame, to represent Sandie, at different times. Frequently, McKenzie will look in the mirror to see herself as Taylor-Joy, as though she were inhabiting the same body. At others, the two will be seen quite separate and apart from each other, with Ellie a disembodied spirit. At still other times, McKenzie will literally be walking about as Sandie, with Taylor-Joy herself nowhere in sight. The movie seems to want to keep viewers guessing, but to no purpose. Last Night in Soho takes a turn toward the horrific, as Ellie increasingly tries to prevent Sandie’s seemingly preordained fate at the hands of a knifer, conveniently named Jack, for shorthand. But since this all happened in the past, and there appears no imminent threat to the Ellie of the present, the movie seems to be lacking an essentially suspenseful impetus. What’s done is done and can never be undone, so Ellie only seems genuinely threatened with experiencing her last night in Soho at the very end. Still, this idea of a mysterious, faceless figure from long ago, who may still be walking among us unrepentant, a ghost, for all intents and purposes, is appropriately haunting. It manages to play into the film’s main themes, with his former East End haunts serving as the structural foundations for swank, modern London, despite being bulldozed and built over long ago. Erected upon the rubble of so many centuries, the past can’t help but bleed over, coexisting with the present, the ghosts of yesterday, serial killers included, still walking among us.“No one ever really disappears,” were told, in phrases fitting for a ghost story, “They’re always around. Somewhere.” Even Soho is depicted like a former red-light district that’s now been gentrified into a trendy fashion row. As Ellie’s landlady states, there’s not a spot in the city that hasn’t been visited by some sort of horror or exceeding unpleasantness. Marking it as the precisely wrong place to be, if you’re a young sensitive who hasn’t yet learned to control your extrasensory powers. Psychically speaking, “London can be a lot.” Ellie’s very clairvoyance, symbolic of her desire to crawl through that open window, into the past, is seen to be unnecessarily dredging up things long dead and buried, that should be. Even her landlady observes, “I hadn’t thought about it. Until you brought it up.”The gimmick of Ellie’s second site is used here to explain away most of the coincidences, such as why she just happens to move into that particular apartment, for instance. Though Ellie’s form of sixth sense is more exasperating than most, giving her just enough detail, in bits and flashes, to misconstrue everything. Leading audiences on a wild goose chase, that contributes to at least one senseless death, and another unnecessary knifing. And there’s no explanation provided as to why, given her otherwise infallible extrasensory perceptions, she sees the single most crucial past event differently than it actually happened. If all else failed, one would think she would have just Googled the history of the area, like a normal person. Especially since, despite her love of the past and land lines, we see she’s not morally adverse to resorting to current technology, when she attempts to record the killer’s confession on her iPhone. She’s no Luddite.The charcoal ghosts, with their blanked out faces and grey flannel suits, appear more like men in black, so it’s hard to work up the requisite fear we’re supposed to feel when we see them. They seem like extras from Mad Men, and the attempt at the end, to turn them friendly, would better suit a Guillermo del Toro ghost story. In fact, the last-minute effort to flip the script on us, with its Aileen Wuornos reveal, changes the emotional meaning of virtually everything we’ve seen up to that point. With the sexually exploitative men now depicted as victims, audiences are expected to completely reroute their sympathies accordingly, in the final few minutes of screen time. It’s like a bloodcurdling feminazi twist M. Night Shyamalan would have debated pulling off; before discarding it in the reject basket. And, however one may feel about that philosophical stairway to heaven, stretching away beyond the hellish fires below, I was never quite sure how serious I was supposed to take such unadulterated gothic macabre. Last Night in Soho ends somewhere far north of over the top. Still, sending everything cathartically up in smoke is meant to be burying the past Ellie was so enrapt by (“you have to let go”), so she can begin living in the present, and looking forward, rather than back. Though hopefully she doesn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, saving those gorgeous and original retro fashions from the flames, to go on feeding her fount of inspiration.