[TIFF Review] ‘Encounter’ Surprises With Genre-Bending Alien Invasion Paranoid Thriller

There’s an infectious energy in the early parts of Edgar Wright’s new film, Last Night in Soho. The film opens with a dance number as aspiring fashion designer Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) lip-synchs to one of her many records in her grandmother (Rita Tushingham)’s country house and this effusive excitement permeates the screen.

Eloise is an old soul: she gets along better with older people and prefers the fashion and culture of the 60s. This immediately sets her apart from her fellow students when she arrives at a prestigious London fashion school, especially her bitchy, competitive roommate Jacosta (Synnove Karlsen). It’s evident immediately that communal dorms aren’t a good fit for quiet, reserved Eloise, so she seeks out her own place in the attic of brusk, no-nonsense landlady Miss Collins (Diana Rigg, in her final performance).

As the flashing red and blue lights of the nearby restaurant wash over her bed, Eloise dreams of Sandie (Anna Taylor-Joy), an aspiring singer in the 60s. Taylor-Joy is as sublime and effervescent as ever, channeling cool confidence as she tells off lecherous men in clubs in pursuit of her goal. The chanteuse makes an immediate connection with manager Jack (Matt Smith), and everything clicks into place when she aces an audition at a second-rate club. But things weren’t so easy for ambitious women at that time and, as Last Night in Soho repeatedly reminds us, London is a dangerous city. 

The first half of the film is a wonderful balance of high-energy 60s bops and glamorous fashion, particularly as Eloise quite literally mirrors her alter-ego in look and design. The mousy, shy brunette girl takes inspiration from the fashion of the time, changing her hair and wardrobe and blowing off classmate – and wannabe paramour – John (Michael Ajao) to catch up on Sandie’s latest adventures. But as Sandie’s situation becomes darker, so too do Eloise’s dreams, as the past begins to intrude on and affect the present. 

Wright expertly frames the connection between the two women, particularly in the early scenes as Taylor-Joy and McKenzie swap places or lock eyes in the mirror. There’s a clear kinship, particularly in the way that Eloise invests in and cares for Sandie’s well-being. The fact that Eloise is an amateur clairvoyant who sees her mother, who died by suicide when she was eight, helps to explain why the young woman is able to see into the past.

The film builds to an inevitable reveal about Sandie’s sad journey, just as Eloise and John finally hook up at Halloween. The revelation, which includes blood, broken glass and screaming, is the high point of the film as the past and the present intersect. Importantly the scenario involves more than just Eloise, who has kept quiet about the supernatural events up until now. 

This is the moment where the film’s energy shifts, as Ellie is finally forced to publicly confess what’s going on to both John and the police (the former goes well; the latter…not so much). This is also when the screenplay by Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns seemingly loses interest in the connection between the two women in favor of Eloise being haunted by the ghosts of the men who were sexually abusing and taking advantage of Sandie. From here on out, Last Night in Soho devolves in a series of repetitive hallucinatory visions. 

The entire back half of the film is composed of these ghosts, their faces blurred and their skin ashen, stalking Ellie as she acts more and more erratic in class and at work. While these spectral appearances are initially effective, the longer Last Night in Soho goes on, the less impact they have. Sadly too many scenes play like a derivative repeat of the last as Ellie goes somewhere, sees the men, freaks out and runs away screaming.

This is frustrating because it’s exceedingly obvious that Eloise must solve the riddle of what happened to Sandie, but it takes too long for her to confide in other characters and even longer for her to begin investigating. This results in uneven pacing that saps the back half of the film of much of its early energy; it’s a bit of a slog. 

This is all before the mystery – and the film’s commentary on exploitation – becomes severely muddled by a questionable narrative development right at the very end. Wright and Wilson-Cairns clearly aim to tackle ambition, sexism and abuse with Sandie’s arc, filtered through Eloise’s modern, contemporary lens. Sadly the messy resolution muddies the message, resulting in a misguided and confused ending that wants to have it both ways, but leaves things on a sour note.

Last Night in Soho has no shortage of positive attributes, including a lavish production design, great period costumes, as well as outstanding performances by Anna Tayor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie. Sadly the repetitive narrative, particularly in the film’s back half, results in uneven pacing and the questionable conclusion that doesn’t entirely work. A new Edgar Wright film is always worth getting excited for, but this is a mixed bag. It’s still undeniably worth checking out, albeit with slightly downgraded expectations.

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