Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Venice Film Festival. Focus Features releases the film in theaters on Friday, October 29.
Edgar Wright’s long-awaited new film has plenty of what you might call The Wright Stuff. That is, it mixes comedy with more nerve-racking genres, it bursts with his love of pop culture, it explores his mixed feelings about the lure and the risk of nostalgia, and it includes several of his other favorite subjects, including London life and dodgy pubs.
More from IndieWire
“Last Night In Soho” also marks a refreshing change for the director and co-writer of “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz,” and “Baby Driver.” Left behind is his trademark hyperactive editing and insistent post-modernism; in its place is flowing movement and intense emotion. It’s not just different from his previous films; it’s different from everyone else’s previous films. OK, you might mistake it for an extra-long episode of “Doctor Who” (it even features a former Doctor, Matt Smith), but “Last Night In Soho” is still .
Another factor that separates it from Wright’s other films: It’s about a woman, not a man. Co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns (“1917”), “Last Night In Soho” stars Thomasin McKenzie as Eloise — or maybe it’s Ellie; she’s at the age where she hasn’t decided which name suits her better. Her father left years ago, and her schizophrenic mother killed herself, but Ellie had a happy upbringing in rural Cornwall, where her grandmother (Rita Tushingham) taught her to adore the music and the style of London in the swinging Sixties. When she is admitted to a central London fashion school, it’s a dream come true. Not only can she design ’60s-inspired dresses, but she also can do it on the sacred ground once trod by Petula Clark, The Kinks, and her other heroes.
Alas, “London is a lot,” to quote one of the film’s catchphrases. The streets aren’t paved with gold; they’re paved with leeches and snobs, many of whom share Ellie’s student halls of residence. (As the condescending Jocasta, Synnove Karlsen gets the best, i.e., bitchiest, lines.) Ellie decides to move into an upstairs room in a creaky house owned by the stern Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg), mainly because it hasn’t been redecorated in decades. In fact, the room is so redolent of days gone by that whenever Ellie falls asleep, she seems to be in Sixties Soho.
Wright and his team produce a marvelous recreation — not as the groovy, brightly colored shopping destination, but as an overwhelming, neon-lit playground of thrillingly sleazy nightlife. Cue a wave of tourist walking tours: One of its key locations is The Toucan, a pub just off Soho Square that most London-based film critics walk past (or into) several times a month. Expect it to be the site of many a selfie from now on.
In this past, Ellie’s visions revolve around Sandy (Anya-Taylor Joy), a confident, Bardot-ish blonde who has come to London to make it as a singer, and who is spotted by a sharp-suited, wolfish entrepreneur (Smith). The time travel is handled with magical, dream-like fluidity: sometimes Ellie watches Sandy from across the room; sometimes she is Ellie’s reflection in the mirror; sometimes she takes Sandy’s place. Maybe it’s not time travel at all, but a symptom of schizophrenia.
Whatever is going on, her trips provide an escape from present-day pressures along with an abundance of fashion ideas. However, she notices that being a beautiful young woman on the bottom rung of the showbiz ladder in the 1960s might not have been as glamorous as she imagined. It might even have been downright disturbing. Now that Ellie has been drawn into Sandy’s life, will she be able to get out?
There’s a lot more plot to come, but suffice to say that “Last Night In Soho” twists and turns between being a perky sitcom about the hassles of student life to a rollicking time-travel romance to a full-on horror movie. And I do mean full-on. Not all of the jokes are brand new, and not all of the plotting stands up to inspection, but the skill with which Wright navigates between tones and time periods is exceptional.
MacKenzie has no problem with the transitions, either. She has already made a mark with “Leave No Trace” and “Jojo Rabbit”, but here she is so delightful and versatile that there doesn’t appear to be anything that she can’t do. Other performances are impressive, too, including Tushingham, Rigg and a leonine Terence Stamp. These are more than winking cameos; they are major roles, acted with tremendous authority. Rigg died just as Wright finished the film, but she is as commanding and mischievous here as she ever was. “Last Night In Soho” opens with the dedication, “For Diana.” What a superb final role for her, and what a superb film.
“Last Night in Soho” world premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Focus Features will release it in the U.S. on Friday, October 29.
Best of IndieWire