Last Night in Soho (2021)

Edgar Wright | 1hr 56min

It’s not the first time Edgar Wright has played in the sandpit of horror, but where his previous homage Shaun of the Dead was a straight send-up of George Romero’s zombie flicks, Last Night in Soho treats its Italian Giallo roots with a little more earnestness and urgency. Its setup of a young woman moving to a new city to study her artistic passion even mirrors that of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film Suspiria, but the comparisons don’t end there. What follows is a pulpy, neon-tinted nightmare, isolating and disorientating our young female protagonist in a romanticised foreign world with a dark, angry, and bloody heart.

And with as bold an artistic stroke as the one Wright paints with here, it isn’t too surprising that there are some disparate elements which don’t quite stick, especially in the final act when a sudden character swing lacks the proper foreshadowing that might have allowed it a little more finesse. Such flaws are easily forgiven though as Last Night in Soho otherwise handles its tonal shifts with great confidence, especially as it begins to edge into Hitchcockian territory in its shocking narrative turns and perverse fascination with murder as a psychological weapon. More specifically, Wright engages with the cultural exploitation of women that pervades historical eras we are all too happy to filter through rose-coloured glasses, emphasising the shifts in perspective it takes to properly examine these historical injustices.

Mirroring between these women in performances, fashion styles, and emotional journeys.

By endowing Ellie, a young, aspiring fashion designer, with the unique gift of clairvoyance, these points-of-view are very much literalised in the film. With this ability she is able to glimpse deceased loved ones in mirrors and, when she moves into an old London apartment, adopt the identity and perspective of Sandie, a gorgeous, blonde nightclub singer who resided in the same room back in the Swinging Sixties, through her dreams.

While Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy fully inhabit their own characters, they are also up to the challenge of shifting their performances ever so slightly in reflections of the other, especially as both represent two separate generations of women who have moved to London with big dreams, only to find gendered obstacles in their way. Wright delights in letting his fluid, kinetic style flow naturally through the duality of these identities, as both Ellie and Sandie switch in and out of each other’s positions in deftly choreographed sequences and find their reflections taking on their counterpart’s appearance, all while pieces of both identities are gradually absorbed into the other.

Superb form in the use of these mirrors and reflective surfaces to bind these two women together.

Mirrors are crucial to Wright’s formal ambitions in expressing this relationship, but they also prove to be integral in his stylistic statement as they distort and multiply characters in twisted compositions, become frames through which his camera moves, and force us to question our very understanding of Ellie’s physical reality. It doesn’t take long for him to entirely erode that sense of geographical space either, as the London of Ellie’s dreams gradually turns into an ever-shifting labyrinth of unpredictable doorways that throw her across the city’s clubs, alleyways, and buildings. Wright’s usual hyperactive editing style may not be entirely present here, but Last Night in Soho is still identifiably from the mind of the director whose inspired transitions and camera movements shape our perception of time and the manner in which it flows around his characters.

Wright spins his camera upside down here, turning this hallucinatory vision of London into a wholly disorientating space.

Wright has never been a slouch behind the camera, but Last Night in Soho may be his greatest effort in mise-en-scène to date, especially in his intensely expressive colour palette of reds and blues that emerge through lens flares and vivid neon washes, flashing through the windows of Ellie and Sandie’s apartment where the past and present converge in a gruelling, sensory nightmare. Though there are horrific figures that stalk and chase Ellie through her dreams and visions, the real threat here goes beyond any one monster – it is the violent, misogynistic exploitation filling every corner of this culture that poses real mortal danger to both women. Without a corporeal figure to pin this terror down to, it is instead in Wright’s haunting, disorientating atmosphere that we feel these physical worlds break down, and are led into the frightening liminal space that is left by the absence of such conveniently clear-cut divisions and identities.

Wright’s red and blue neon lighting is so effective, paying direct tribute to Dario Argento’s Suspiria. The duality of identities and eras is represented even further in the duality of these colours, blending them into purple as Ellie and Sandie’s worlds merge.

Last Night in Soho is currently out in theatres.

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