Wright is at his very best in the 60’s nightclub scenes, where an awestruck Ellie tails Sandie into a club and essentially steps into her body. Using practical effects and detailed choreography, Ellie becomes Sandie becomes Ellie as a suitor played by Matt Smith twirls them both around the dance floor. Whatever Wright decides to do next, chunks of Last Night in Soho suggest a proper musical should rise to the top of the list. McKenzie plays the first act as mousey, and the third as a decompensating mess, but the energy of the second act, where she’s invigorated by briefly getting everything she’s wanted and is translating it into present success, is a delightful new turn from an actor who’s thus far played serious roles without much room for ecstatic joy.
A character, however, can’t reach an emotional peak thirty minutes in without the inevitable comedown. As Ellie learns more about Sandie’s life, the film turns into something like a puritanical horror film, where the lustful and hedonistic are plunged into hell. Sandie’s dreams of performing get downgraded into dancing, and then get downgraded further into prostitution. Ellie’s return trips turn into red-lit scenes of pure degradation, and provide a thin line between burlesque and bordello. Some of that perspective comes from sheltered Ellie, but the film ratifies it with later plot developments. There’s also a thread of the corrupting urban environment against the wholesome countryside, a tiresome theme that Wright has previously skewered in Hot Fuzz. Here, it’s taken as a fact of life.
Sandie’s broken dreams push Ellie towards the aforementioned breakdown, and while McKenzie is great with a crumbling psyche, the film itself pulls its punches. If Wright wants to imitate Italian horror and its tradition of holding nothing back, then certain things need to happen in the imitation. There are repeated scenes of threatened horror instead of actual horror, like the brakes are slammed on right before the moment of impact and everyone giggles at the close call. One particular moment inexcusably doesn’t end with scissors stabbed through a cheek. Horror demands commitment, and Last Night in Soho is left running away from the altar.
Last Night in Soho skates by on the strength of its two lead performances, and when the film is in line with Wright’s bubbly tone, it’s as good as anything he’s done. The tone management is what starts to falter from a director who’s more comfortable with irony than the sincerity that always creeps into his work. Here, that sincerity takes the form of heightened psychological breakdown and trauma, but Wright can’t fully wrap his hands around it any more than he’s been able to handle any of his films’ big emotional moments. Last Night in Soho doesn’t leave me irritated like some of his work has, but it could’ve been his best if the heights were sustained. C+