Combining the past and present has always been writer-director Edgar Wright’s biggest strength.
What’s “Shaun of the Dead” without the influence of George Romero’s classic run of horror movies in the ’70s and ’80s? “Baby Driver” isn’t as charming without its soundtrack of modern-day hip-hop and ’60s surf rock. “Hot Fuzz” is as much of a send-up of “Bad Boys” as it is the ’80s documentary “The Thin Blue Line.”
With “Last Night in Soho,” Wright takes that generational juxtaposition and questions whether or not a reverence for the past is a good thing.
Opening with aspiring fashion designer Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) dancing and lip-syncing to her record of Peter & Gordon’s “A World Without Love,” she bounces around her room, imitating the pictures on her wall like her poster of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Save for some modern flourishes, you would think she’s living in 1964.
Once the record falls and skips, it’s revealed she’s living in modern times, moving from her quaint, rural life to the bustling city of London to attend fashion school. While there are multiple signs that the city may be too much for her frail mental health, she wants to make a go of it.
It’s not a spoiler to say that the overwhelming judgment from her peers, as well as a lack of a support system, takes its toll quickly on Eloise. Her only escape: transporting herself into the ’60s when she sleeps.
In her dreams, she’s the beautiful, aspiring singer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a blonde who has the confidence, poise and courage that Eloise lacks. As Sandie goes deeper into London’s music scene, she, along with Eloise, discovers those candy-coated dreams are laced with poison, in the form of male gatekeepers, like Jack (Matt Smith), who want something in exchange for the spotlight they grant to others.
As Eloise goes deeper into Sandie’s story, her reverence for the ’60s curdles. It feels like the same for Wright and the nostalgia of his past movies. While he employs the quick cuts, fast zooms and extreme close-ups he used so well in “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” and “Shaun of the Dead,” they disappear as the movie gets darker and more serious. The comedy that was so sharp and quick in his past films is mostly gone, replaced with Eloise and Sandie’s ongoing trauma and horror.
While “Soho” soars in its first hour, it tends to fall into the sloppiness of a writer-director wrestling with his emotions in its second half. While McKenzie and Taylor-Joy, as well as Diana Rigg, in her final performance, give charismatic, layered performances, others, like John (Michael Ajao) and the mysterious Silver Haired Gentleman (Terrence Stamp) are one-note characters saddled with some surprisingly clunky writing from Wright.
Save for what could be a last-minute twist, the mystery behind Eloise’s madness is a frustrating mix of intrigue and emptiness. You get what Wright’s trying to say with the first reveal, then he hammers it away at least five or six more times and in the end, there’s not much to it.
Those flaws considered, “Soho” is an engaging, trippy ride that’s worth wrestling with what it’s trying to say, even if Wright might not understand it himself.