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Last Night in Soho (2021)::rating::3::rating::3

Your tolerance for this wacky, atmospheric thriller will depend on your affinity for the freewheeling era known as Swinging London.  If the thought of a film built around the music of Cilla Black and Dusty Springfield or the fashion chic of Twiggy and Julie Christie sounds like just your bag, baby, you could probably smack another star on this rating.  Otherwise, this shindig feels a lot like disposable horror fluff–gorgeous, fast-paced, well-acted, but ultimately empty.  Unfortunately, director Edgar Wright’s homage is an ambitious near-miss.

The story kicks off on a promising beat.  It’s modern day, and Eloise “Ellie” Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) is a bubbly, brainy girl from Cornwall, England.  She lives with her grandmother (Rita Tushingham), and dreams of designing fashion for the runways of London.  They celebrate when she gets accepted to study there, although gran worries that the stress of London once drove Ellie’s mother to suicide.  Still, Ellie insists on moving, and is soon on her way to a new life.

Ellie settles into her new apartment, where her roommate, Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen), turns out to be a hateful narcissist.  (Side note:  Why is it that movie roommates are either redoubtable BFFs or loathsome enemies, with nothing in between?  Just once, I really want to see a roommate that’s just…meh.)  Jocasta and her squad of mean girls quickly alienate and embarrass Ellie, ultimately driving her out of the apartment altogether.

Adrift, Ellie answers an ad for a bedsit from Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg, in her final role), a salty old woman with a few strict house rules.  Eager for this quiet calm, Ellie agrees to everything and moves in her things.  It’s not long before this new bedroom takes on a few supernatural properties:  On her first night, Ellie gets transported back to the mid-60s, when Connery’s James Bond and Michael Caine’s Alfie ruled the box office.  She stumbles onto Soho to find miniskirts in every direction and Tom Jones blaring from all the speakers.

As Ellie explores London’s swanky new vibe, her focus soon lands on Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), an aspiring Cilla Black.  Sandie desperately wants to finagle her way to a premier gig at the Café de Paris.  For that, she ingratiates herself with Jack (Matt Smith), a charismatic young manager with all the right connections. Unfortunately, Jack also has a dark side that could cause Sandie to become another nameless statistic.

Naturally, Ellie determines to solve the mystery of what happened to Sandie, and suss out any potential evildoers.  She gains an ally in John (Michael Ajao).  He’s a fellow design student who chooses to ignore the rumors about Ellie’s faltering sanity and just go with it.  Meanwhile, an elderly, smooth-talking cad (Terrance Stamp) roams the streets of Soho, and his cryptic double-talk implies he might have more than a few clues about Sandie’s fate.  Can Ellie get to the bottom of all this before she becomes the next victim?

See, doesn’t this sound like a killer idea for a movie?  Well, it is.  And, in bits and pieces, Soho realizes some of that potential.  Ellie’s first tromp through 60s London is an eye-popping experience.  You can bank on Oscar nominations for Marcus Rowland (Production Design), Chung-hoon Chung (Cinematography), and Odile Dicks-Mireaux (Costume Design).  That’s just for starters.  This film is a visual feast, and it’s worth watching for that reason alone.

The optics get aided by the music, which doesn’t so much sample 60s lounge rock as it feasts like Winnie the Pooh with a honey jug.  As I said before, if you’re a fan of this era, there’s no denying the power of this songscape:  That means a deep dive into everybody from Peter and Gordon to Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick, and Tich, and many, many more.  Wright and company achieve the rare feat of saturating their movie with period music, without any of it sounding too on the nose.  Even if you skip this movie, give the soundtrack a listen.

Soho gets another boost from the lead performances:  McKenzie fills Ellie with a potent combination of brains, humanity, and unrelenting dread.  We believe her character’s descent into madness, and that believability is about the only thing tethering the movie from spinning into all-out goofiness.  As Sandie, Taylor-Joy sizzles into every scene like a lit fuse, ready to demolish anything in her way.  Rigg was an icon of this era, so it’s great to see her chew the scenery as the embittered landlady.  That goes ditto for Stamp, who applies his unmistakable baritone to every syllable of spooky dialogue.

Unfortunately, all this adds up to a movie where the parts are better than the sum total.  Subtract the technical mastery and acting prowess, and this would be a completely forgettable experience.  Some viewers may love the nostalgia and meticulous period recreation enough to rate this higher, but I was left wishing the story played as good as it looked.  If that were the case, Last Night in Soho could’ve been a masterpiece.

116 min.  R.  On Demand.

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