Every Edgar Wright film to date has been a bubbling cauldron of movie homages, winking visual gags, and genre tributes. The British director emerged as a noteworthy filmmaker in 2004 with Shaun of the Dead, a “rom-zom-com” that chucked classic George A. Romero–style zombie movies in a blender with a comedy about a man-child who just needed to grow up. It should have felt like a cheap spoof, but Wright has since made a career out of balancing varied referential material with genuine pathos. He followed Shaun with the action-film parody Hot Fuzz, the brilliant video-game pastiche Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the sci-fi yawn The World’s End, and the major hit Baby Driver, a heist film set to a bouncy mixtape.
That’s why I was intrigued that Wright, who has always worn his love for bygone pop culture on his sleeve, seems to have a much darker perspective on the past in his newest film, Last Night in Soho. At face value, it’s another heady cocktail of his obsessions: the glitz and glamor of swinging-’60s London and the lurid jolts of that era’s horror flicks, such as Roman Polanski’s tormented psycho-thriller Repulsion or the bright and gory Italian giallo genre. Wright’s gambit is to lure the audience in with gaudy visuals, then unspool a narrative in which nostalgia becomes a nightmare.
Last Night in Soho has the most pointed message of Wright’s films to date: Being a woman in supposedly freewheeling ’60s London meant being subjected to a torrent of creepy, if not dangerous, men, even for the most glamorous starlets of the era. But in trying (along with his co-screenwriter, Krysty Wilson-Cairns) to make a sharp piece of commentary, Wright loses grip on his primary skill as a maker of effective, crisp entertainment. The film works best in its gauzy opening act, as Wright leads the viewer on a stylish trip down memory lane; when the plot turns grim, and the viewer is repeatedly bashed by the director’s thesis, Last Night in Soho turns into an unmemorable slog.
Despite its 1960s focus, much of the film is set in the present day, revolving around Ellie Turner (played by Thomasin McKenzie), a mousy fashion student who rents a room in Soho from an old landlady (the late Diana Rigg, wonderfully brusque in her final screen role). But the room, nestled amid the bustling nightclubs and neon signs of the famous Central London neighborhood, is haunted by a former tenant, the aspiring young singer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). Every night, Ellie zaps into the mind of Sandie, going on dreamy adventures through ’60s venues as she catches the attention of the talent manager Jack (Matt Smith) and tries to gain stage time at venerated spots such as the Café de Paris.
Wright is, without a doubt, one of the most talented creators of set pieces in contemporary cinema—the opening car chase of Baby Driver and the extended fighting game battles of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World are some of the most rewatchable movie scenes of the 21st century. The bombastic introduction of Sandie in Last Night in Soho is giddying stuff too: She sings and dances for Jack, then whirls around the clubs with him, swept up in wild romance—while also seeing Ellie’s face every time she looks in a mirror. The sequence captures the thrill of Sandie’s boldness and the strange, supernatural danger of whatever’s happening to Ellie.
But even though the conceit of Ellie’s nighttime visions is strong, Last Night in Soho doesn’t evolve past the rush of that first dizzying dream. Ellie’s fascination with Sandie grows as she tries to unearth what happened to her, yet the flashbacks begin to drone as Sandie’s life grinds into the monotony of backup-dancing gigs and prostitution. It’s not all as delightful as they make it look in the movies, Wright tells the viewer—a solid-enough message that he gets across quickly and then can’t build upon. Clearly, Sandie’s tragic past and Ellie’s freaky fugues are eventually going to reach a denouement; the two-hour film takes too long to get there.
The final twists are unfortunately as easy to discern as the overall moral Wright is trying to deliver. I appreciate the director looking askance at much of the referential glee of his past work, but, strangely, his latest effort lacks ambition despite its deeper themes. While Wright remains exceptionally gifted at mashing up genres to create moments of real cinematic lightning, by and large, Last Night in Soho is all flash, no impact.