The concept of a haunting is typically associated with paranormal phenomena, the idea being that spirits from the afterlife (or ghosts of people who’ve died but not yet passed on) linger within our reality. Yet the term’s most common usage refers to a thought, idea or memory, an implication that elements of the past remain locked in the present. Given the myriad hardships of daily life, some people seem to choose to be haunted by the past, whether its their own personal history (such as their presumably rosier childhood) or an era which they have only secondhand knowledge of. Those who indulge in the latter tend to overly romanticize their chosen time period, believing that life was somehow magically better then. With Last Night in Soho, director/co-writer Edgar Wright and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns confront this skewed sense of nostalgia head-on, forcing their protagonist to personally confront the past she’s idealized and see it for what it truly was and still is, its tendrils lingering within the present.
Last Night in Soho follows the charmingly naive Eloise Turner (Thomasin McKenzie), an aspiring fashion designer who gets accepted to a prestigious school in London. Eloise is artistic in an idealistic dreamer type of way, her obsession with all things 1960s defining her tastes and personality. It’s no surprise that she instantly has a hard time getting along with her peers, especially her assigned roommate Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen), as their vapid, self-obsessed, passive-aggressive backstabbing is not at all what Eloise imagined London life to be. Nor is the city itself what she’d hoped, its weathered streets and decaying buildings only containing hints and vestiges of the old Soho she’s dreamed about. Looking to take more control of her present, Eloise stumbles upon the past when she moves from the dorms into a one-room bedsit, run by the strict Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg), and discovers that a young aspiring singer, Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy), used to live in that very same room during the 60s. Eloise’s mysterious sixth sense, which up until now has presented her with visions of her deceased mother (along with, it’s hinted, images from other people psychically), opens up during her dreams at night, transporting her into and around Sandy’s body, revealing that the woman was mistreated (and likely murdered) by her sleazy beau-turned-pimp, Jack (Matt Smith).
Most of Wright’s films to this point involve a particular structural gimmick — for instance, Shaun of the Dead (2004) is a zombie movie, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) is a video game movie, and so on. What’s perhaps most thrilling to see about Last Night in Soho is how Wright has eschewed constructing a singular gimmick for the film, the movie being the result of a potpourri of influences instead. Eloise’s precarious state of mind as a result of her visions is reminiscent of 60s and 70s Gothic tales of women encountering spirits, such as The Innocents (1961), The Haunting (1963) and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971). Her insistence on investigating a murder that took place 50 years ago and the procedural elements that go with it resembles numerous 60s and 70s Gialli, as do the film’s surprising twists and turns. While Eloise begins to have her visions of Sandy’s past invade her every waking moment, the initial visions are sparked by her bedroom, a ghostly element of time travel that recalls the machine-less time travel of Jack Finney’s 1970 novel Time and Again and the film Somewhere in Time (1980).
As this indicates, Last Night in Soho is a movie stuffed with imagination and incident, which leaves it feeling a little formless. Wright’s work tends to be meticulously constructed, and while the film continues his strong attention to detail, it isn’t the Swiss watch that his prior movies have been. Some characters get short shrift, such as Eloise’s love interest John (Michael Ajao, at least bringing a nice charm to the role), and as Eloise tumbles down the rabbit hole of Sandy’s past, there are a lot of dead ends and ambiguous elements that are never satisfyingly resolved. It’s a messy movie, in other words, yet it’s that looseness which is so engaging and exciting. Granted, Wright’s films are most enjoyable when adhering to a structure (audiences know that Scott Pilgrim will have to fight a Final Boss, for example), but it’s impressive how the director expands his range cinematically. Unlike many recent films, it’s genuinely difficult to predict where Last Night in Soho will go, which only adds to the excitement and puts the audience more fully in Eloise’s increasingly unbalanced frame of mind.
One element of Wright’s style that is abundantly present in Last Night in Soho, however, is his use of music. The movie is chock full of sound and score (the latter provided by composer Steven Price), with Wright’s curated selection of pop/rock tunes threaded throughout. As his career continues, it’s becoming clear how Wright is subtly transforming the use of source music in films: while directors like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino made famous the use of source cues as score, Wright doesn’t consign his selections to just that application, using music not just as score but as diegetic sound, integrated musical setpieces and ambient collage as well. As Eloise is “transported” to the 1960s for the first time, Cilla Black’s “You’re My World” opens up into an overwhelming and enveloping chorus, operating sonically like the infamous transition from sepia tone to Technicolor in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Carrying on from his impressive diegetic musical Baby Driver (2017), Wright and his sound design team have essentially remixed the movie, mashing up beats with other music cues, dialogue and the like. It’s a technique that allows Last Night in Soho to be carried through its rockier moments while elevating and informing the character’s emotional journeys without them having to be explicitly stated.
The multifaceted, nuanced quality of music is vital to Last Night in Soho, in which people aren’t so easily defined. Wright and Wilson-Cairns clearly have a large amount of empathy for their characters, which leaves none of them being fully “good” or “bad.” That, coupled with the wonky structure of the film, may trip up those looking for a no-frills message or subtext, particularly when it comes to Sandy’s plight of being a showbiz hopeful led astray. Such a tale has been told so often that it’s become one with expected attendant morality and commentary, and Last Night in Soho is disinterested in merely rehashing it. Part of that is due to the film’s mission to burst the bubble of romanticizing the past — not just for those who revel in the fantasy of a bygone era, but people who insist that pop culture used to be somehow superior to the present, and those who delve into true crime cases believing that they’ve conclusively solved a murder that went unsolved at the time. The truth is that the past haunts all of us irrespective of whether we love it or not, the decisions made by people of years gone by still resonating today. Last Night in Soho, like any good ghost story, reminds us that the past is more immediate than we’d like to believe.
Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.