Style, substance at heart of infectiously cinematic, sensational shocker 'Last Night in Soho'

  • Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), right, watches wannabe singer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) curiously in "Last Night in Soho."

    Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), right, watches wannabe singer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) curiously in "Last Night in Soho." Courtesy of Focus Features

  • The silver-haired gentleman (Terence Stamp) takes extra interest in Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) in "Last Night in Soho."

    The silver-haired gentleman (Terence Stamp) takes extra interest in Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) in "Last Night in Soho." Courtesy of Focus Features

  • Things go weird when Eloise rents a room from Ms. Collins (Dame Diana Rigg) in "Last Night in Soho."

    Things go weird when Eloise rents a room from Ms. Collins (Dame Diana Rigg) in "Last Night in Soho." Courtesy of Focus Features

 
 
Updated 10/28/2021 6:09 AM

"Last Night in Soho" - ★ ★ ★ ½

The less you know about this gleeful, supercharged masterpiece of movie manipulation, the better.

 

One spoiler can be allowed because the film's trailers highlight it: "Last Night in Soho" initially echoes Woody Allen's nostalgic time-travel yarn "Midnight in Paris" before slowly spiraling into a Dario Argento horrorfest.

Meanwhile, we become virtual pinballs in Edgar Wright's infectiously cinematic, sensational shocker that feverishly flippers us from one genre into another, accompanied by saturated neon lights and searing, nostalgic 1960s pop tunes.

The story begins as a classic, innocent-girl-goes-to-the-big-city tale, starring a vibrantly winning Thomasin McKenzie as Eloise Cooper. We meet her whimsically dancing in her room to Peter and Gordon's 1964 hit, "A World Without Love."

Orphaned as a little girl, Ellie loves all things from her late mother's 1960s era, especially the music. When the London College of Fashion accepts her as a student, off she goes, much to the worry of her concerned grandmother (1960s British actress Rita Tushingham).

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Disliking on-campus living with her snooty classmates, Ellie rents a private upstairs room from elderly landlady Ms. Collins (the late Dame Diana Rigg in her last screen role), who used to work as a cleaning lady in the building she now owns.

Then things go weird.

In a bed with a tidal wave of a floating sheet, Ellie dreams of being transported back to 1965 Piccadilly Circus where 007's "Thunderball" plays at the theater and the fabulous Café de Paris is the place to be seen.

As she wanders down the club staircase lined with mirrors, her reflection transforms her into knockout, wannabe singer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a blonde, British Nancy Sinatra from her "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" period.

Does homely Ellie actually become sensuous Sandie? They appear to be the same person, but no, Ellie continues to observe Sandie with fascination from the other side of the mirrors.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Is Ellie dreaming? Then how does she explain the hickey on her neck, the result of Sandie's amorous romp with a dapper talent agent named Jack (a charming and subtly sinister Matt Smith)?

Wright has always been a risk-taking filmmaker ("Baby Driver," "Shaun of the Dead" and "World's End" head his resume) and he has no problem providing no explanations for what we witness. Instead, he sweeps us away with an energized vision, dynamic cinematography (by Chung-Hoon Chung), surgical editing (by Paul Machliss), inspired production designs (by Marcus Rowland) and knockout period costumes (by Odile Dicks-Mireaux).

Things look up for Ellie. She lands part-time employment at the Toucan bar. She finds some standard-issue friendship and romance with a fellow fashion student named John (Michael Ajao).

But an older, white-haired Toucan regular (Terence Stamp) gives Ellie the willies with his piercing, knowing stares and cryptic comments. He seems especially interested in her after she adopts a blonde hairstyle inspired by her '60s alter-ego.

Then we have those aggressive apparitions of white, middle-aged businessmen wearing gray suits and ties invading "Last Night in Soho" in a none-too-subtle nod to the #MeToo movement.

It's yet one more provocative layer added to a jaw-dropper movie teeming with twists and turns celebrating Wright's fiercely unpredictable drive and style.

The juxtaposition of Taylor-Joy's poised, self-confident control and McKenzie's innocent curiosity fuels this fantasy-horror tale, perfectly encapsulated by Taylor-Joy's eerie interpretation of Petula Clark's hit "Downtown," a breathy, sensual performance suggesting the movie might qualify as a "Last Night in David Lynchville."

• • •

Starring: Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, Diana Rigg, Terence Stamp

Directed by: Edgar Wright

Other: A Focus Features release. In theaters. Rated R for drug use, language, nudity, sexual situations, violence. 116 minutes

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