Red Light District
Watch movies long enough, and you’ll start to learn the individual traits that directors have. I think it would be physically impossible for Quentin Tarantino to make a movie with no dialogue.* If J.J. Abrams made a movie set in a lightless cave, he’d figure out a way to sneak a lens flare in somewhere. Some for-hire filmmakers are able to sneak under the radar by tailoring their style to the project, perhaps in a desire to let the story be the star. For the most part, you can eventually spot their tics.
One of those tics for Edgar Wright is music. With the exception of Martin Scorsese, I’m hard-pressed to think of another filmmaker that knows how to use music quite so skillfully. Instead of obvious needle-drops, Wright consistently picks the right songs at the right time to build atmosphere, expand character, and push the narrative forward.
For so long, Wright was viewed as the Shaun of the Dead guy, the English nerd director making English nerd movies. It was reductive, yet entirely unsurprising. Then, he made Baby Driver, the high-octane action film that earned a boatload of money and ended up on an awful lot of year’s best lists. That kind of success gave him options, ones that he wouldn’t normally have had. So what does he do to follow up? He makes One Night in Soho, a film that’s simultaneously different from his past work and completely consistent with it.
Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) has a dream. She designs clothing. She’s good at it, and her dream is to leave her small country town to journey to London and become a fashion designer. Like most dreams, it occupies plenty of her thoughts. Like most dreams, the possibility exists that it might consume her. Her mother was consumed by a similar dream, and even after she died, Eloise can still see her. Does she have a kind of sight, or is she plagued with the mental illness that took her mother?
Eloise’s dream inches closer to reality when she’s accepted into a prestigious college in London to study fashion. Her grandmother Peggy (Rita Tushingham) loves her and supports her, but she knows London is packed with a certain kind of man, ones with designs on young ladies starstruck by the big city. Peggy also worries her granddaughter is too fragile to handle the city. After all, London can be a bit much.
It turns out that London is a bit much for Eloise. The creepy cab driver making comments about her legs doesn’t help. Her new roommate Jocasta (Synnove Karlsen) really doesn’t help, with her snide comments and cutting cruelty. While Jocasta has used the pressure of school to create a new identity, Eloise nearly cracks under its weight.
She leaves student housing and finds a small apartment for rent. Her landlady Miss Collins (Diana Rigg) is stern, but there’s a hidden warmth. Settling in is easy for Ellie with the wafting smells of the French restaurant below her and the blink of a neon sign. Perhaps she’s settling in too much, as her life collides with another life, one involving the 1960s life of budding singer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), an infatuation with smooth operator Jack (Matt Smith), and the realization that Eloise and Sandie’s lives are profoundly connected.
One Night in Soho is Edgar Wright’s stab at a modern-day giallo movie, the Italian genre that’s a wild-ass blender of slasher movie/erotica/crime/psychological horror. We see that in Wright’s film with the deep red lighting that often accompanies violence, and the moments of horror cranked up to eleven. As someone who came up in the world of comedy, Wright has become known for his impeccable timing, the ability to set up a joke and effectively pay it off much later. For the most part, he does that here, only he’s setting up scares instead of laughs. He does good work by creating a specific feel of a 1960s London that only slightly existed, and then gradually curdling the atmosphere into something dreadful.
But Wright is focusing harder on the psychological horror aspect of giallo, particularly the part in which Eloise may or may not be losing her damn mind. If you’re good with a “what is real” kind of scenario baked in with a semi-compelling mystery, I expect you’ll enjoy Last Night in Soho. However, be warned. The first time in which Eloise is confronted by faceless phantasms, it was effective, Then she’s confronted by them again. And again. And again. I understand why they’re there and what they represent, and so will you, but Wright uses them too often in a rushing-toward-the-camera, ooga-booga way. When the tension should be cranking up, it occasionally flatlines, and Wright’s horror direction is stronger elsewhere.
For the most part, I admired the screenplay by Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns. They offer strong character work featuring people with distinct points of view, such as Eloise’s love of nostalgia contrasting with her clear discomfort with modern life. While I’m someone with less than no interest in fashion from the 60s, I liked Eloise as a character, and thus, her interest interested me. It’s also nice seeing Wright, a filmmaker who frequently makes movies about movies, be involved with a screenplay that has something to say.
That’s how you write well. What was somewhat less great was the denouement in the third act. Conceptually, I think it works well. The flaw for me was that it felt a little rushed, though Wright has made a career out of setups that can be highly subtle, and maybe your clueless reviewer over here just missed it.
While I’m a little picky regarding the writing, the same can’t be said for the cast. Everyone does good work, from the sleek scumbaggery of Matt Smith’s Jack to the subtle insecurity of Synnove Karlsen’s Jocasta. Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy play off of each other well, showing moments of duality while always emphasizing the individuality of the two characters. Eloise is a country bumpkin, while Sandie goes for what she wants like a heat-seeking missile. They couldn’t be more different, except for the similarities that bind them together. This is also the final film appearance of the mighty Diana Rigg, who passed last September. As Mrs. Collins, she’s the definition of the iron fist in the velvet glove, and it’s a treat watching the evolution of her character.
Is Last Night in Soho Edgar Wright’s best film? I’m not sure yet, mostly because I’ve only seen it once. His films benefit from multiple viewings, and there’s something nagging at me, a belief that I’ve missed a critical aspect of this one. It has its flaws, and there aren’t any virtuoso moments here, such as the astounding opening scene in Baby Driver. Is that necessary? Perhaps not, because Wright’s style still has substance to spare.
*It would also be impossible for him to make a movie without close-ups of feet.