The “big reveal” in writer/director Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho is the single most unintentionally hilarious film moment of 2021. That’s a bad accomplishment in a normal year. It’s apocalyptically bad in a year that also features an M. Night Shyamalan movie.
Soho hinges on some of the worst of the worst sex worker tropes. That is, until it puts its thing down, flips it, and reverses it and somehow takes the exact opposite position, which is somehow even worse and more upsetting. Told in the framework of a time-traveling nightmare, the film is a reminder that the only time anyone actually wants to hear about anyone else’s dream is if they are in it or if it is otherwise embarrassing or hilarious. Two out of three ain’t bad there, Eddie.
Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) is a 60s-obssessed small-town girl who lives with her grandmother after her mother’s suicide and dreams of becoming a fashion designer. That sentence has a lot going on it, but it’s also the entirety of Ellie’s character and arc. The difference between Ellie at the beginning of the film and Ellie at the end of the film is that you’re more dead inside by the time this is all over.
After she moves to London for design school, Ellie rents a room from Ms Collins (Diana Rigg), a persnickety grumpus who is strict only about “no boys after 8 pm.” Because, thanks to Brexit maybe, no one in the UK can have heterosexual sex after 8 pm. That first night, Ellie has a dream where she is both watching and is a wannabe crooner in 1966 named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). The exhilaration of the first dream gives way to a nightmare, as Sandie’s story soon surrounds a wicked manager named Jack (Matt Smith).
Before long, Ellie is seeing swinging sixties fragments bleeding through her waking life. This should be much more of a red flag to John (Michael Ajao) than it is. He continues to kindly court her, even after watching her commit attempted murder. Love is blind, lust is a restraining order in waiting. Speaking of crimes, Ellie becomes convinced Sandie was murdered IRL, leading to the things that go beyond what the trailer showed.
Like Tarantino before him, Wright’s mastery over music cues has gone from engrossing to gimmick. The same can be said for their shared obsession with nostalgia pornography and endless cinema references. Style is a good thing, but without narrative substance, it’s a just very glittery crutch. Soho is so boring, redundant, and reductive. As Zola showed just a few months ago, there are substantive ways to critique the perils and pitfalls that surround sex work with panache and without playing out predictable parables.
Nothing is the fault of the performers here, as McKenzie was clearly asked to keep her delivery style somewhere around “chugging Red Bull now made with real cocaine,” Smith has like 10 minutes of screentime with which to offer cliched menace, and Taylor-Joy is reduced to “Sexy: A Cautionary Tale.” This is all Wright, and it’s all wrong.
Soho is inert until it’s repellant. It’s a self-serious joke that feels like it was written by someone who is just now hearing about “women.” Baby Driver was a misfire that felt like a warning. The threat is here. The phone call is coming from inside the house. Do not answer it.
Grade = D-
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Ricardo Gallegos at La Estatuilla (full review in Spanish) says “Soho is an extremely irresponsible film in which Edgar Wright replaces the development of his characters and an exploration of his own themes with colored lights, gore and music, eventually falling into repetition, cliché, and offense.”
Yasmin Omar at Harper’s Bazaar says “For its flaws, Last Night in Soho remains a thoroughly entertaining descent into the squalor lurking behind London’s thrumming nightlife, a curtain-pulling peer behind the scenes to reveal its waking nightmares.”
Kelechi Ehenulo at Confessions From a Geek Mind says “So caught up in the technical artistry and visual aesthetics of the genre, it becomes a muddled experiment of clashing ideas and diluted mixed messages.”