The interesting aspect about nostalgia is that it tends to go in cycles. It generally takes about 20 years for filmmakers to start looking back at a particular decade, such as the 1950s with American Graffiti in 1973, the 1960s with Diner in 1982, 1970s with Dazed and Confused in 1993, and the 1980s with multiple properties in the 2000s. Writer/director Edgar Wright has flipped the script on nostalgia with his latest film, Last Night in Soho.
The film centers on Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie), a modern-day young woman from rural England who gets accepted into a school in London to study fashion design. Ellie’s mother died when she was young, and she still has occasional visions of her, an ability that plays a part in her new life. Unable to stand her overbearing and bullying roommate Jacosta (Synnove Karlsen), Ellie finds a room to rent in a home owned by Miss Collins (Diana Rigg).
Right away, though, Ellie starts having dreams about Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a woman in the 1960s who dreams of becoming a singer. Sandie’s dream soon becomes a nightmare when her manager (Matt Smith) coerces her into doing things she doesn’t want to do, both onstage and off. Ellie becomes obsessed with Sandie, conflating their two lives, leading to detrimental effects in school and her life as a whole.
Co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917), the film absolutely revels in 1960s nostalgia, especially a certain kind of nightclub music. Ellie, raised by her grandmother after her mom’s death, has a fondness for the oldies and plays the records constantly. Songs like Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” Dusty Springfield’s “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” James Ray’s “I’ve Got My Mind Set on You,” and more punctuate scenes throughout the film, emphasizing the mood of the film in ways both subtle and overt.
The film is a slow burn, taking a lot of time to set up Ellie’s state of mind. It’s so long, in fact, that you start to wonder if there will ever be a point to the story. The film is said to be an homage to giallo, an Italian term for a type of thriller/horror. While the ghosts Ellie encounters and the mystery surrounding her mental trips back in time qualify for that genre, the film struggles a bit in its ability to keep those things interesting long enough for the finale to arrive.
Even at its slowest, though, McKenzie has a presence to her that keeps you interested in what her character will do next. At times resembling Ted Lasso’s Juno Temple in looks and demeanor, she credibly takes Ellie down a psychological rabbit hole, with her descent more frightening as the film goes along. Taylor-Joy, fresh off her fantastic turn in The Queen’s Gambit, is luminous, but the nature of her character makes her unknowable. Smith does a nice job in his villainous role, but it’s also enhanced by his hollow-eyed face.
Whether audiences go along for the ride of Last Night in Soho will depend on their level of patience. It’s far from your typical thriller/horror, forcing viewers to wade through an unusual amount of setup before hopefully getting to a satisfying payoff.
Last Night in Soho opens in theaters on October 29.