Edgar Wright started out his career with the hugely entertaining collaborations with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in tv sitcom Spaced, which had a casual magpie’s eye for aping cinema tropes that felt refreshing back in 2001. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz continued that offbeat vibe and were global comedy successes, but follow-up The World’s End didn’t continue the hot streak, and since then, it’s been all downhill via misfires Tin-Tin, Scott Pilgrim and Baby Driver. His latest Last Night in Soho is a time-travel thriller that doubles down on themes of sexual violence, and the cheerful good-humour that made Wright a driving force a decade ago is missing. Repeating tropes from The Shining and other horror films worked as pastiche; now, it just feels like Wright has run out of ideas.
Thomasin McKenzie plays Ellie, an art student with a passion for fashion who moves away from the countryside and her worried grandmother (60’s icon Rita Tushingham) to the big smoke of London, where her halls of residence prove a threatening and aggressive environment. Instead, Ellie finds a spare room with sinister landlady Ms Collins (60’s icon Diana Rigg), and finds herself slipping back in time to the 1960’s where she encounters night-club ingénue Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy from The Queen’s Gambit). Identification between the two girls is strong, but Ellie is horrified to find that Sandie was brutally murdered by an exploitative pimp (Matt Smith); could the old man (60’s icon Terence Stamp) who pursues her through the streets of Soho be related to the killer?
Vague spoiler alerts; Sandie isn’t actually dead, but this slight of hand doesn’t work at all since we’ve already seen her throat bloodily cut as she lay in bed, a scene viewed in frenzied detail in Ellie’s experience of the past. The script is by Krysty Wilson-Cairns, but it’s hard to work out what was intended here; Ellie appears to be having a misleading memory of an alternate universe event that didn’t happen within a time-travelling flashback. It’s not the kind of plot-point to hang a 43 million pound movie on; there’s a reason Last Night in Soho has made less than half that sum back to date. Wright smothers gloss over this half-cooked premise with nostalgic cameos, slick musical numbers and tapped-out horror cliches like the armies of blank-faced men who haunt Ellie, but the film’s lavish recreation of cruelty towards women isn’t something to get misty-eyed about.
There’s something to admire in the slickness of Wright’s approach, but nothing much at all to like in the stale end-product; Last Night in Soho may look swish in a deliberately retro way, but its retrograde attitude to women and sex is out-of-step with 2021, and despite two good actresses in the leads, the whole project is holed beneath the waterline by a juvenile conception. Horror films have always had a lot to answer for in terms of representation, but Last Night in Soho’s nostalgic reveling in sexual violence towards women suggests a film that simply didn’t need to be made.
Last Night in Soho can currently be streaming in the UK, US and elsewhere.