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'Last Night in Soho' review: Visually dazzling, but ultimately disappointing

Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Sandie and Matt Smith

Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Sandie and Matt Smith as Jack in "Last Night in Soho." Credit: Focus Features/Parisa Taghizadeh

PLOT A young fashion designer is drawn into an unsolved murder from the 1960s.

CAST Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Terence Stamp

RATED R (bloody violence)

LENGTH 1:56

WHERE Area theaters

BOTTOM LINE Brilliant visuals help compensate for this horror-thriller’s so-so story.

A nostalgic dream turns into a waking nightmare in "Last Night in Soho," the story of a budding fashion designer whose obsession with 1960s Swinging London leads her to a long-ago mystery. It’s the latest slice of cinematic razzle-dazzle from one of our greatest pop filmmakers, Edgar Wright ("Shaun of the Dead," "Baby Driver"). Visually, he’s firing on all cylinders here, though his film ultimately promises more than it delivers.

Thomasin McKenzie plays Eloise, nicknamed Ellie, a girl from the country who gets accepted to a prestigious London fashion institute. "It’s not all you imagine, London," warns her granny, Peggy, played by Rita Tushingham, one of several British stars of the 1960s scattered throughout the film. But there’s no keeping Ellie home, especially with her dead mother haunting her in every mirror.

Granny was right: Ellie's dorm-mate, Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen), is a backstabbing scenester whose loud parties drive Ellie to take a room off-campus in the house of cranky but maternal Ms. Collins (an excellent Diana Rigg, "The Avengers"). After this fairly long setup, the movie finally kicks into gear: As neon lights flicker outside her attic room, Ellie dreams of a beautiful girl named Sandie.

Who is she? Played by the beguiling Anya Taylor-Joy ("The Queen’s Gambit"), Sandie is Ellie's blonde doppelgänger, a budding pop star who arrives in ‘60s London prepared to become the next Cilla Black (though she auditions with Petula Clark’s "Downtown"). As Ellie watches, Sandie's boyfriend and manager, Jack (Matt Smith), takes her to all the best places — but the dream curdles and something horrible happens to this bright young talent. Could the dream of Sandie be connected to Ellie's late mother? Awake, Ellie begins to connect Jack with a creepy old night crawler (Terence Stamp) who keeps popping up around Soho.

Wright’s film is exceedingly clever cinematically. Ellie and Sandie initially trade reflections in multiple mirrors (even Orson Welles might have marveled at these images), then trade physical places as Jack twirls each one back and forth across a dance floor in a single, seamless shot. Editor Paul Machliss, a frequent collaborator with Wright, matches light and color as Ellie's dreams blend with reality.

All the more disappointing, then, that Wright’s screenplay (with Krysty Wilson-Cairns) fails to satisfy. The characters never quite come to life — Sandie feels like an ideal, not a person — and the various twists and turns become repetitive. This being a mystery, I’ll say little more except that the solution isn’t as captivating as the puzzle.

"One Night in Soho" takes its title from an obscure 1968 track by a British five-piece band with the wondrous name of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. Stay through the end credits while it plays and you’ll get a sense of what Wright was going for — something swirling, romantic, spooky and grand.

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