The sparkling lights of a theatre marquee; the swishy minidresses and dapper suits swirling across the dance floor; classy cocktails and a singer crooning—if that all sounds like something out of a dream, that’s because it is. Eloise Turner’s dream, to be exact. Eloise, who goes by Ellie, and is played by the always great Thomasin McKenzie in director Edgar Wright’s new film “Last Night in Soho,” is an aspiring fashion designer who just moved from a small town in Cornwall where she lived with her supportive but concerned grandmother (Rita Tushingham) to London to attend the college of fashion. Ellie has always wanted to be in London, but her vision of the big city is quite different from reality. Obsessed with the 1960s, from the music (Ellie stuffs half of her suitcase with her old records) to the clothes, it becomes clear on her first time in her new place that what Ellie is looking for doesn’t really exist. The girls in her dorm, especially her roommate Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen), tease her for her handmade outfit and love of retro things. On her way to her dorm, Ellie is immediately put on edge when her cab driver asks her if she is a model and comments on her legs. Dive bars replace the classy joints she clearly envisioned when looking at an old photo of her mother (who committed suicide after pursuing the same dreams as Ellie, and who Ellie now sees visions of) standing outside the Criterion.
But after moving out of the sterile dormitory and into an old-fashioned room in a Soho building owned by an elderly woman called Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg, wonderful in her final film appearance), Ellie goes to sleep and immediately dreams of a girl called Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy, who fits this era like a glove), as aspiring singer living in the 1960s London of Ellie’s desires. But she doesn’t merely see Sandie—she seems to become her. The way Wright films the first part of this dream is mesmerizing; as we follow Sandie into the theatre where she confidently believes she can get an audition, we see Ellie reflected back in the mirrors she passes. Sandie is gorgeous, poised, has great dance moves, and immediately appears to bewitch charming manager Jack (Matt Smith), who promises to help her with her career. Ellie is entranced by this too-real dream, even going so far as to style her hair and purchase vintage clothes she can’t really afford to try to be more like Sandie. But the dreams soon turn into nightmares. Jack is pimp and the work he has in mind for Sandie has little to do with singing, and the ghosts of the men she was forced to entertain bleed into Ellie’s reality, causing her to appear increasingly unhinged as she searches for the truth.
“Last Night in Soho” boasts an intoxicating, stylish aesthetic in its 60s-set scenes, from the costumes to the soundtrack filled with hits like Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” The Searchers’ “Don’t Throw Your Love Away,” and James Ray’s “Got My Mind Set on You.” And both its sequences set in the past and present contain visuals (the saturated red and blue lighting courtesy of the neon sign outside Ellie’s apartment window) and themes (a whodunit, occasionally violent murders, and beautiful female victims) that draw on the giallo films of the 60s and 70s, such as Mario Bava’s “Blood and Black Lace” and Dario Argento’s “Deep Red.” The lines between past and present, reality and illusions, become increasingly blurred as the film progresses, resulting in some haunting, if not actually scary, imagery. But the initially intriguing mystery surrounding Ellie’s dreams becomes increasingly messy as the film progresses and Wright’s script (co-written with Krysty Wilson-Cairns) takes on more than it can handle. This is especially apparent in the way the film clearly thinks it is promoting a feminist message, when it actually isn’t. Wright and Cairns present the various abuses Ellie and especially Sandie suffer at the hands of men, from verbal harassment to physical assault, but overstep a bit when they assume that sex work (work that many women engage in willingly, not because a man forced them to) is nothing more than a form of this abuse. It’s a pretty shallow take that becomes even more confounding with the film’s final act twist, which turns victims into victimizers. “Last Night in Soho” doesn’t do the best job connecting Ellie and Sandie and why the former is experiencing visions of the latter, but it becomes Ellie’s mission to help Sandie, who quickly turns from an independent, ambitious young woman into someone who needs to be saved.
Not to mention that “Last Night in Soho” contains some other elements that either don’t quite gel with the rest of the movie (like the connection between Ellie and her mother) or just don’t sit right in general. The latter statement particularly pertains to John (Michael Ajao), a fellow student who takes an interest in Ellie and is kind and supportive to her regardless of how insane her behavior becomes—even after her visions turn an initially consensual encounter into John—a Black man—nearly being accused of assaulting Ellie, a white woman. Ajao is good but his character, who spends the entire movie in service to Ellie’s whims, isn’t properly utilized.
“Last Night in Soho” is beautiful to look at and frequently fun to watch, but it doesn’t quite know what to say with its messaging. Or rather, it knows what it wants to say in a broad sense, but doesn’t leave room to explore it, opting instead for a story whose general takeaway is that the abuse of men turns women mad and desperate. It’s ultimate empathetic to the female characters involved, but that doesn’t make the more problematic aspects go down any easier.
“Last Night in Soho” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 116 minutes. Rated R.