Edgar Wright is a talented director — in style, form, sound — but he can’t quite seem to figure out what to do with women. His latest film, “Last Night in Soho” — which has not one, but two female leads — offered a glimmer of hope for redemption after the sparse, two-dimensional female characters in “Baby Driver,” but it soon becomes the most glaring evidence of the filmmaker’s inability to adequately capture and celebrate the female experience. While Wright has indeed produced yet another visually compelling film filled with shimmery kineticism, he has done it all better before. “Last Night in Soho,” like its characters, is a shiny, polished surface covering a whole lot of nothing.
“Last Night in Soho” follows small town girl Eloise “Ellie” Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) to the city to study at the London College of Fashion. After moving into an apartment owned by the no-nonsense Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg), Ellie begins having vivid dreams about a 1960’s singer named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), who begins a relationship with teddy boy manager Jack (Matt Smith). In the psychological horror, Ellie begins to question her perception of reality when Sandie’s pursuit of stardom takes a dark turn for the worse and the two worlds seem to collide.
The film is pretty enough. Although not as flashy or precise as some of Wright’s other works, “Last Night in Soho” is undeniably pleasant to look at and boasts some truly stunning scenery. The first few of Ellie’s dreams transport the audience into an absolutely breathtaking vista of downtown Soho in the ’60s, buzzing with life and lush with glitz and glam. As she revels in the Soho nightlife, the film follows Sandie through clubs, onto the dancefloor and into some of the most captivatingly shot sequences of the year. The subtle integration and paralleling of Ellie into this world is also done with an effective, experienced touch, and viewers, like Ellie, don’t want these idyllic dreams to end.
But of course, they do. And when cinematography and production design step out of the driver’s seat, writing proves to be a nervous wreck behind the wheel. Wright co-wrote the screenplay with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who cowrote Sam Mendes’ “1917.” “Last Night in Soho” is far from either writer’s best work. Lines are too on-the-nose and expository, offering details about the past that end up foreshadowing nearly nothing important. Characters are too static and solely representative of single personality traits; they’re exclusively either kind or rude or timid or seductive, and as a result, nobody feels real. We barely learn enough about Ellie or Sandie to root for them or stay invested — they become reduced to objects of pity, which marks the film’s most obvious and most tragic shortcoming.
“Last Night in Soho” does three things with its women: torments them, makes enemies of them and fetishizes them. Women are celebrated only for their beauty and then suffer for it. When they are not being punished by the male gaze, they are punished by each other. Somehow, in a film so well set up to explore women’s relationships with the world and with one another, there is not a single friendship between two women. They do not grow alongside or empower each other; they butt heads or become cautionary tales.
McKenzie and Taylor-Joy are incredibly talented actors who would undoubtedly flourish when given thoughtful roles to grow into. None of the characters in “Last Night in Soho” move forward, create change or progress in any meaningful way; Ellie and Sandie are simply batted around for two hours like glinting balls of foil.
Nice to look at but lacking nuance, “Last Night in Soho” and its wasteful use of McKenzie and Taylor-Joy wear an audience’s patience down to its last legs. The film feels devoid of substance; it is an ornately carved chest that holds nothing, and the gilded twinkles of gold plated brass can’t blind viewers to this ugly truth.