“This is London. Someone has died in every room, in every building, and on every street corner in this city.”
I don’t think it’s a controversial statement to say that Edgar Wright may be one of the greatest film directors of the current generation. Having started his career both writing and directing his own short films and British comedy TV series, his work alongside Simon Pegg and Nick Frost resulted in an appropriate notoriety, with the Cornetto Trilogy of rom-zom-com Shaun Of The Dead, buddy cop movie Hot Fuzz and action sci-fi flick The World’s End giving us an insight into Wright’s flexibility when it comes to genre. This is something which he has continued to demonstrate, bouncing from the likes of comic book adaptation Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World to heist action in Baby Driver, taking pit stops along the way with music videos, a Sparks Brothers documentary, and more. Now he returns with Last Night In Soho, his first foray into horror since Shaun Of The Dead, but in a much more serious way. Has Wright nailed another genre film?
Eloise Turner (Thomasin McKenzie), known as Ellie, moves from Cornwall to London to attend the London College of Fashion. After a horrible first night living in student accommodation, she moves into the top floor room of a bedsit owned by the kind, but firm, elderly Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg). Ellie has an unusual gift; the ability to see ghosts, which to that point had manifested only in seeing her deceased mother in mirrors. However, on her first night in the bedsit, she begins to dream of aspiring 1960’s singer Sandie (Anja Taylor-Joy); dreams which become more harrowing as time goes on… dreams which start to affect Ellie’s everyday life…
Years of jump scares have affected what the general public may think of when a film is described as a horror film. Last Night In Soho doesn’t really contain any jump scares, and for some, that may mean the horror tag is a misnomer – and for a good duration of the film, I would have agreed; instead wanting to attribute it with a tag of something along the lines of “supernatural thriller” instead. When I walked out of the cinema, I realised that actually wouldn’t be right; in fact, horror is the correct term, and I think that was mostly informed by the body-covering goosebumps that remained on my arms until long after I had gotten home from the theatre. Wright’s iteration of horror harks back more to the mindset of the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Terence Fisher; presenting a building, creeping dread that manifests both through and around Ellie throughout her dreamworld trips to the 60’s, becoming more and more nerve-wracking when her visions begin to manifest themselves in the waking world as well. Wright uses his special effects carefully and poignantly to this end, and as the historical manifestation come further away from dreamlike trips to a time which Ellie idolises and present themselves in a more horrific way around her, the overlapping of the reality of her modern surroundings and the ghoulish visions she is subjected to blend wonderfully through the CGI, the lighting effects and through Steven Price’s atmospheric score, which perfectly complements the bevy of licensed songs from the era which Wright uses to great effect in the piece. That reserved attitude towards special effects is a trademark of Wright, and Last Night In Soho carries with it Wright’s dedication towards practical effects; with his use of technical mirror acting (in which a mirror is not actually present) and sweeping shots used to exact quick actor swaps and repositionings being key for a lot of the shots, all accented by beautiful sets, bustling crowds and audiences and crafted together with that aforementioned score and wonderful, atmospheric lighting. In terms of aesthetics and screen presence, this could be the most “Edgar Wright” that an Edgar Wright movie has ever been.
Dedication to location is also pertinent in Last Night In Soho, and Wright’s utilisation of Soho is tremendous. It’s become a cinema cliché that New York is a character in films set in the Big Apple; but it’s clearly not the only location which can hold a character role, as the lights and sounds of Soho, both in the modern and in the past sequences of Last Night In Soho, play as much of a part in establishing the emotional tone of a scene as the score, the effects and the actors do.
Speaking of the actors; Wright has assembled an incredible cast for Last Night In Soho, and clearly knows how to get the most out of them. Thomasin McKenzie may already have had an impressive output for such a young actor, but I have no doubt in my mind that Ellie Turner will be one of the roles which defines her as an actor for the duration of her career. Ellie is kind, empathetic and passionate; an introverted oddball who doesn’t really fit in with modern society and whose gift eventually puts her in direct harm. McKenzie sells Ellie not just with with the script, but her physicality in this film is exquisite, especially at the height of the horror scenes. Ellie’s personality is offset by that of Sandie’s, brought to life perfectly by Anya Taylor-Joy; who radiates confidence and charm with every step and flatter of her eyelashes. The juxtaposition creates something almost aspirational, and McKenzie does an excellent job demonstrating how her visions of Sandie begin to influence her life for the positive, only to come crashing down around her as the narrative progresses. The two actors don’t directly interact often, but Wright’s directorial skill is demonstrated during the sequences where they literally mirror each other during Ellie’s visions of Sandie, as the two actresses often swap in and out, most notably during a sequence of Sandie dancing with her teddy-boy manager and love interest Jack (Matt Smith).
As with Taylor-Joy, Smith does an excellent job of displaying Jack’s confidence and swagger, and even during the more tender moments we see of him with Sandie, he still manages to present a certain level of threat beneath the surface; though Taylor-Joy’s performance easily leads the audience to believe that she is more than capable of looking after herself around his ilk; thought that begins to slide as the narrative progresses and the danger Sandie is in becomes more apparent. Sandie is not the only one with a romantic interest, and Ellie’s classmate John (Michael Ajao) creates a stunning juxtaposition with Jack; as the warning from Ellie’s grandmother initially leads her to be wary of all men, but Ajao brings a deeply kind and empathetic performance in his first cinematic performance since 2011’s Attack The Block. John bolsters our grounding in reality as Ellie’s ability to distinguish what is real around her fails more heavily; and he also provides a lot of the more light-hearted moments, excellently placed within the story to ease the tension and give the audience a respite from the creeping dread. Last Night In Soho was also the final performance of the late Dame Diana Rigg, and though it is a small role, it still gives the titan of stage and screen plenty to do with her time. Her impact on the narrative is important, and her moments on screen are the perfect summation of what made Rigg such a compelling talent for such a long career.
There’s not much else that can be said without risking wandering into spoiler territory, which I absolutely do not want to do; this is a film which must be seen fresh to get its full effect. If there are cinema screenings near you and they are safe to attend then I heartily recommend you do so, as Wright’s ability to create cinematic experiences is rivalled by very few in this day and age; but this will also be worth watching when it becomes available on smaller screens as well. If you are like me and are often put off by the notion of horror movies due to the influence of what modern horror often looks and feels like, then trust my recommendation that this is a classic piece of thrilling, suspenseful cinema that uses horror tropes effectively and impactfully, and is worth the time of anyone who enjoys winding, intricate narrative cinema presented by a skilled director working at his absolute best, delivered through an excellent cast.
Watch this film.