It would be easy for cinemagoers watching Edgar Wright’s new feature to think they’ve wandered into Spencer by accident, since it opens with the dedication “For Diana” and eventually becomes a car crash.
Diana in this case is the late Diana Rigg in her final role, alongside other ’60s icons Terence Stamp, Rita Tushingham and Cilla Black – not the real one, that would be ghoulish even for Wright. If Baby Driver was an action movie that should have been a comedy, this is a horror flick that should have been a drama, and is similarly bogged down in homage (this time to Dario Argento and David Lynch) at the expense of story. The setup sees a shy fashion student (Thomasin McKenzie) move to London where her nights are haunted by a 1960s singer (Anya Taylor-Joy) who exudes the charisma she lacks, making the first half a kind of Fight Club Silencio.
This shortage of charisma proves something of a death knell for Last Night in Soho, particularly when the focus shifts away from the Swinging Sixties. These stunning early sequences are beautifully lensed by Chung Chung-hoon, whose cinematography illuminated the masterworks of Park Chan-wook. Wright ditches his trademark jump cuts (when McG starts copying you it is probably time to stop) for something more kaleidoscopic in style, and brings out the sinister side of 1960s hits like ‘Puppet on a String’ and ‘You’re My World’. His protagonist yearns for the past through rose-tinted glasses, finally seeing its much darker underbelly; a potent political statement that is misplaced in a film so clearly awed by nostalgia.
Before you can say, “I know that Pizza Express,” the picture turns into a Bad Horror Movie, complete with library investigations, CGI ghosts and badly acted caricatures (though fans of British sketch comedy will be pleased to see Celeste Dring from Lazy Susan). Only Taylor-Joy stands out and she is as wasted as the average denizen of Soho. McKenzie spends the second half running and squeaking her lines at a pitch not heard in the area since Ornette Coleman played at Ronnie Scott’s. Her one-note performance is the fault of a lead character devoid of dimension, and a director too consumed by the cleverness of his shots and references to consider the “final girl” as anything other than a statement of priority.
Even cinephiles and neontophiles seduced by the glowing opening will feel cheated when Wright abandons the visual feast for cynical tropes and clumsy exposition. That initial emphasis on aesthetics leaves no room nor reason to care about the mystery, whose reveal is such a representational nightmare it undermines the entire point of the story and ends up like 2013’s Diana: an insult to her memory.