Mediocre writing haunts “Last Night in Soho”

Rating

In the years following his genre-busting 2004 breakout, “Shaun of the Dead,” director Edgar Wright has evolved from cult hero to legitimate star. His ability to fuse comedy, horror and action-adventure tropes with his playful music-video editing style has produced a string of critical hits. Yet following the massive success of his jukebox heist flick “Baby Driver,” which netted over $107 million at the domestic box office in 2017, Wright shifted gears by venturing first into documentary filmmaking (“The Sparks Brothers”) and now into the psychological thriller genre.

“Last Night in Soho,” which hit theaters on Oct. 29th, isn’t just one of Wright’s comedies with a new paint job and soundtrack. While the film recycles some of the stylistic techniques that have won the director acclaim over the past two decades, it is tonally distinct from anything Wright has produced to this point. Yet while the boundary-pushing is commendable, the execution proves lacking; “Last Night in Soho’s” sheen can’t conceal the flaws of its sputtering script.

Ellie (Tomasin McKenzie) is a small-town teen looking for a taste of adventure. Yet even before she sets off for London to begin her degree in fashion design, the viewer suspects the demure girl in the handmade clothes is in for a rough time. After riding into the city with high hopes, she faces leers from men on the street and ridicule from her posh classmates. Looking to get away from the mean girls, Ellie abandons her student housing and rents a room from an elderly woman (Diana Rigg) in Soho that turns out to provide more of an escape than she bargained for.

Tomasin McKenzie puts in a strong performance as an innocent teen beaten down by the big city.

When Ellie sleeps, she’s transported to another world – London in the 1960s. She inhabits the body of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a sauntering blonde who exudes the confidence that Ellie can’t seem to muster. Sandie wants to be a performer, and her boldness in chasing that dream woos both a talent manager named Jack (Matt Smith) and Ellie, who begins dress and talk more like Sandie during her waking hours. Yet as we learn that Sandie’s story is defined not by triumph but abuse, the connection between Ellie and her dreamworld becomes more troubling. Soon, she finds herself haunted by the ghosts of the men who destroyed Sandie’s dreams – or is she just going crazy?

Unlike many of Wright’s frenetic hits, “Last Night in Soho” takes its sweet time showing its cards, and the slow-burn setup works pretty well at first; foreshadowing in the script and on the screen (think mysterious figures flashing across mirrors) keeps viewers eager to see what darkness lies ahead. The film’s strongest section comes early in the second act when Ellie first begins following Sandie; Taylor-Joy, despite limited dialogue, is enthralling as always, and she serves as a satisfying foil to McKenzie, who demonstrates an impressive range as she alternates between girlishness, confidence and desperation. Though Wright’s filmmaking here isn’t as showy as his work in “Baby Driver,” it’s still a lot of fun to watch Ellie and Sandie trade control of the same body mid-dance number or serve as each other’s reflection in mirrors and car windows.

Yet just when the movie’s stakes should ratchet up, “Last Night in Soho” begins to fizzle. Ellie nears a mental breakdown as ghosts from her dreams start to phase into the real world, but it’s never really clear to the viewer whether she’s in actual danger; the “is it real or is it all in her head” question is a little played out to begin with, but it’s flatly ineffective here because we don’t understand the stakes in either case. If the (surprisingly bland looking) ghosts are real, do they want to hurt Ellie? If she’s just imagining things, then is she going to kill herself? Flunk out of school? Without answers to these questions, would-be scares are stripped of their emotional cores; viewers are too busy playing detective to actually feel anything.

The faceless ghosts haunting Ellie represent the abusive men who tormented Sandie. Unfortunately, they just aren’t very scary.

The third act brings some clarity, and sure enough it offers the biggest thrills and scares of the film. Still, it’s not entirely satisfying; while Sandie and Ellie contrast wonderfully in terms of temperament, their journeys don’t parallel as neatly as you’d like to see in a story like this. It’s as if writers Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns (“Penny Dreadful”) ran out of time before they could write the last, perfectly polished version of the script and instead had to settle for a half-executed cool idea. This weakness is somewhat surprising coming from Wright, whose early hits were built around brilliant screenplays, but maybe it shouldn’t be a shock considering “Baby Driver’s” own imperfect writing. That film proved Wright has enough directorial flair to transform an average script into an excellent film, but “Last Night in Soho” shows that he shouldn’t lean too hard on that strategy.

Watch it: if you like to geek out over film editing.

Skip it: if you want a fast-paced thriller.

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