A country girl’s dreams of a glam city life warp into a living nightmare in Edgar Wright’s gloriously macabre thriller Last Night in Soho (★★★★☆). Arriving from her quaint village in Cornwall to attend the London College of Fashion, shy aspiring fashion designer Eloise (Jojo Rabbit standout Thomasin McKenzie) quickly gets a taste of the cosmopolitan life of fashion, excitement, and freedom that she so dearly craves.
It comes with more than a hint of bitterness, though, from her bitchy, worldly roommate Jocasta (Synnove Karlsen). But the country mouse from Cornwall soon finds her sweet spot, renting an attic room in the house of cranky but caring Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg). In her private one-room apartment, sixties-obsessed Ellie can shut the door, put on her old 45 records, and escape in her mind to the swinging London of Petula Clark and Cilla Black, of go-go girls in bubble-gum pink shift dresses and big, blonde bouffants.
Ellie harbors an innocent ideal of the past that she gleefully dives into in dreams, inhabiting the life of fresh-faced wannabe singer Sandie (a hauntingly effective Anya Taylor-Joy). Yet, as Sandie’s wide-eyed pursuit of stardom descends into a frightening tale of sexual exploitation and murder, Ellie is increasingly gripped by the physical presence of this past life. Sandie’s deadly demons creep into Ellie’s waking world, disrupting her sanity and threatening even worse.
The atmosphere of Ellie’s London swings from innocent and hopeful to tormented and terrified with alarming swiftness — and with expertly modulated tension and pacing by director Wright. Conjuring a seductive and dangerous, neon-lit fantasia, the film dances to the beat of ’60s Brit-pop, propelled by the adventurous lighting and camerawork of cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung.
At the center of it all, McKenzie unravels convincingly as Ellie loses her grip, frightened that she may be following in the unstable footsteps of her mom, who didn’t survive her sojourn in London. The script by Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns shrewdly teases that the frazzled fashion student might be caught up in a fantasy, or out-of-body experience, manifesting a past life, simply succumbing to the pace and pressures of the pitiless metropolis, or all of the above.
As the mystery surrounding Sandie unfolds, Wright ramps up the horror elements — from bloody violence to flashes of sinister, faceless figures looming out of the darkness — while sustaining a grounded depiction of Ellie’s embattled mental state. She has support in the form of amorous fellow student John (Michael Ajao), and her loving Gran back in Cornwall, played by former ’60s starlet Rita Tushingham, but in essence, she’s on her own against the dead-eyed ghouls that haunt her.
Something of a cautionary tale, the film uses Ellie and Sandie’s dual trajectories to paint a harrowing picture of the ways wicked men make prey of ambitious young women — who will keep flocking to London and New York and Paris, no matter what. Whether or not Ellie can save herself, her nightmare does come to a conclusive end, which the movie pulls off in bold, surprising fashion, leaving just a few threads dangling in its solidly satisfying mystery of a small-town girl lost in a town without pity.
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