Certain films grab you in the first scene, the first minute. Last Night in Soho has that kind of opening. Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) dances through her rural English home to Peter and Gordon’s “A World Without Love” in a newspaper prototype of a dress that she created. While Soho plays out in modern times, you’d be forgiven if it takes you several minutes to realize. Eloise’s room, her music, her style are all rooted deep in the ’60s, a time that even her mom likely would’ve been too young to experience firsthand. The countryside isolation makes the illusion that much easier to maintain.
Unfortunately, for both Eloise and the viewer, the film can’t hold onto the magic of that opening throughout its running time. For her, that means the big city of London shatters her safely constructed world. For us, it means a film that eventually loses control of its tone and themes.
Last Night in Soho Loses Track of Itself
While it works, Soho showcases a stellar McKenzie performance. Having first “met” her in Leave No Trace, I have come to expect a certain more mature than her age quality from the actor. However, here, she gets to shake loose of that and “feel” like her age. She stumbles and struggles believably with being the odd girl out thanks in large part to her mean girl roommate Jocasta (Synnove Karlsen), an awkward classmate with a crush on her John (Michael Ajao), and the expectations of others, especially her well-meaning but undercutting grandmother (Rita Tushingham). It’s always enjoyable to see an excellent actor reveal yet another mode that they can nail.
The film also has a wonderful sense of style provided by cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung’s talented eye. Director and co-writer Edgar Wright collaborates well with his DP. The well-done transitions between the color-saturated ‘60s and the more grey-blue in modern times never go over the top. The echoes of earlier films don’t feel overly referential but will be a treat, especially for Giallo fans. Wright also utilizes his gift for snagging the right needle drops that feel just right for the scene without being overly obvious.
The problem comes from the actors who aren’t McKenzie. Terrence Stamp, as a man haunting the alleys and storefronts of his heyday, is delightfully tart, but his personality seems less developed and more beholden to the whims of Krysty Wilson-Cairns’s script. There’s a moment he goes full-on nasty that you can assemble the pieces for as the credits roll, but it takes effort. Worse, it feels like the turn is only there to sell a trick the film’s playing on you, not born of anything organic about the character or his relationship to Eloise.
Later, Eloise’s landlady Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg)—she moves out of student housing when it gets too unpleasant—has a similar scene. Once again, how hard Soho jams on the pedal isn’t surprising in storytelling, but from a lack of craft standpoint. The scene sells the film’s final twist, but does so with a sledgehammer.
Many will likely guess it moments before the reveal, which is often a sign of a well-planned film. Here, though, it is all due to that total lack of subtlety. Again, as with Stamp’s character, you can see in retrospect some of the pieces, but the movie deploys them in such a way that it doesn’t feel like it is playing fair with the audience or the mystery.
Other actors feel flat as can be. Anya Taylor-Joy as Sandie, Eloise’s ‘60s alter ego, is all overconfidence and vibrancy when she first bursts on-screen. You know precisely why Eloise would be swept up in this woman’s wake even over 50 years after the fact. You understand why men and women alike turn towards Sandie when she walks into a room.
However, as the plot moves her further down a place of degradation, Taylor-Joy gets increasingly short shrift. We should see the light dying in her eyes over time. Instead, as her dreams are used as currency to control her by club promoter Jack (Matt Smith), the film seems to give her less space to author the character. The fact that Smith’s sneering malice becomes increasingly rote as the film goes on only makes it worse. About halfway through, I became far more interested in a movie about Eloise, a young woman struggling to make it in London, than the supernatural plot that this Sandie and Eloise’s joined fates.
Eloise’s fashion school classmates feel one note from the jump, perhaps on purpose. However, that’s the case for Ajao as well. That leaves a potentially interesting flip of the usual “male hero, supportive love interest dynamic” essentially inert. Ajao’s John is SO supportive, SO unblinkingly trusting of Eloise that their relationship is devoid of interest. There’s “I’m here for you,” and then there’s “No, it’s fine that you screamed at without explanation for 15 minutes and nearly got me killed.” The fact that there’s an interracial relationship, meaning her behavior would seem to put him in even more significant danger, goes unwholly unnoted, never mind explored.
Wright delivers an effectively frightening visual interpretation of the spirits that begin to haunt Eloise that more she’s drawn into being Sandie’s mirror self. Sepia colored with shifting composite faces and drab ‘60s business suits, they’re absolutely spooky. At first. However, as with Smith’s Jack, the more we see them, the less power they have to scare. We certainly get why they frighten Eloise. As a viewer, though? They lose all power to increase your heart rate long before their deeper meaning stands revealed.
There’s plenty wrong with Soho, as you can see. Still, it’s a difficult film for me to dismiss wholly. Perhaps it’s that opening, McKenzie’s performance, or the portion of the film where Wright and Co. genuinely feel in control of the material. Maybe it is the film’s final minute which is both exhilarating and disturbing in a way that the rest of the movie seemed to be reaching for without achieving throughout. Whatever the case, I find myself hesitant to cast it aside. Ultimately, it isn’t a “good” movie, but there is something in there that I want to see again. Something that feels worth the otherwise disappointing ride.
Tim Steven is a sad tomato, Tim Stevens is three miles of bad road. He’s also a therapist, staff writer and social media manager for The Spool, and a freelance writer with publications like ComicsVerse, Marvel.com, CC Magazine, and The New Paris Press. His work has been quoted in Psychology Today, The Atlantic, and MSN Ireland. Feel free to find him @UnGajje on Twitter or in a realm of pure imagination.