dir: Edgar Wright
Last Night in Soho is not the kind of flick you’d expect from this director. He’s very clever, very erudite, has a deep, deep knowledge of cinema, and loves to put everything together in a fashion so fussy even Wes Anderson is like: “just chill out, occasionally, dude.”
It’s also the first of his flicks that isn’t totally boy and nerd centric. As much as I like his so-called Cornetto trilogy of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End, and his other stuff, and his other genre exercises like Baby Driver, he has a certain mode, and he tends to stick to it.
This is nothing like those other flicks, though it’s still a genre exercise. It’s set contemporarily, but a lot of the “action” happens in the early swinging 60s in London, of all places. Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) is a young woman just moved to the city from Cornwall wanting to pursue her dream of being a fashion designer. Though she gets into a design college, what she was too naïve to realise is that some, if not many of the people who would go to fashion design college would be vapid and poisonous fucks like Jocasta (Synnove Karlsen), who goes out of her way to make Ellie’s life a living hell for no discernible reason.
I found all the dumb, pointlessly cruel shit Jocasta does in this first bit to Ellie way, way more triggering and irritating that anything that happens in the rest of the flick. And let me tell you, the rest of the flick is about the horrible exploitation of women by men, and a whole bunch of murders. So many murders.
Ellie is sensitive, and I don’t mean that she doesn’t taken constructive criticism kindly or has a fragile sense of self, I mean she seems to be attuned to the spirit world or something similar. Does she see ghosts? I’m… not entirely sure.
When she is drawn to a particular flat in Soho, her nightly routine becomes one of being transported, not through a wardrobe to a snowy wonderland, but to the 1960s, and to the adventures of Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy). It’s not entirely clear whether Ellie “becomes” Sandy, or whether they’re both somehow there together. There are times when their dual consciousness seems to be mirrored, as in, literally mirrors are used to show that they’re somehow both “there”. Sometimes Sandy seems to sense Ellie, and sometimes Ellie almost gets Sandy’s attention.
Sandy’s story is not that different from Ellie’s initially: She comes to London and wants to be a singing star. An absolute piece of shit called Jack (Matt Smith) spies her out and spins the lies that would undo many an aspiring starlet.
Over successive nights Ellie gets to watch Sandy’s fall from grace, if indeed she had that far to fall, as Jack’s seduction and promises of stardom turn Sandy from hopeful singer to stripper to working girl, all with a side of abuse from her worthless pimp Jack.
Ellie’s waking life gets even more complicated, which wasn’t great to begin with, as aspects of these 60s memories mix with stuff happening around her, leaving her looking like a fucking crazy person, and, to be very unfair to what must have been a hard performance, acting like one too.
The film seems like it’s pointing towards a particular explanation for everything that’s happened, and who was probably responsible, and what doings transpired and such. But then there’s like another hour to go, so more fool you (or me) for thinking things were going to go that smoothly.
Thomasin McKenzie is a phenomenal actor. And a Kiwi, no less. She has given some of my favourite performances in a whole bunch of flicks I’ve seen over the last couple of years, not least of which was in Leave No Trace, as the daughter of a very troubled man. This flick puts her through the fucking ringer, and she’s totally up to the challenge; it’s just that I feel bad for her. Part of me feels like she’s in some ways as exploited by the nasty and cheap machinations of a plot that forces her to act bonkers for a lot of the flick as the Sandy character is in her nightmarish descent into misery.
To Wright’s credit, this flick may be about how horrid the behind the scenes stuff must have been for a lot of the women that made the Swinging Sixties swing as much as they did, but he never turns the flick itself into exploitation material, as in, the film doesn’t make either McKenzie or Taylor-Joy give it up, so to speak, onscreen, which I’m thankful for.
But it’s still hard watching someone act bonkers, and be told by everyone around them that they’re bonkers, even when it’s in the pursuit of something like The Truth.
It’s not uncommon for horror flicks to have someone begging for other people’s help, only to be ignored or avoided, until it’s almost too late. Ellie runs around within the flick convinced of certain facts which would kind of make sense if the flick wanted to make sense (as in, Ellie can feel the memories of “ghosts”, for lack of a better term).
This flick is not trying to make sense, though. We are used to the idea in fiction of ghosts sticking around with unfinished business, to have wrongs righted and such, but the ghosts here are the times themselves, those crazy nights in Soho or on Carnaby Street, the hopes and dreams of Londoners and out of towners that infused themselves with the walls, the windows, the ceilings of the place, and even the beds. The betrayals, the sadism, the despair: they’re all still right there in London, if you just know where to look.
The flat Ellie moved into is run by an old, dear lady, in the script known as Miss Collins, but to the rest of us known as Dianna Rigg, or even Mrs Peel from the superlative 60s spy series The Avengers. But she was also a Bond Girl, having starred in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. There’s another Bond Girl in the movie, being Margaret Nolan, who was in Thunderball. So is Wright collecting Bond Girls to make a point, or is it a compulsion, or is he making the broader point that who was more objectified or treated disposably than Bond Girls?
With respect to both of the ladies just mentioned, this was their last cinematic hurrah, as they both passed away in the last year or so. After all, we also saw Dianna Rigg superbly play the Queen of Thorns, Lady Olenna Tyrrell on Game of Thrones, and she died there, on that show, for our sins, just after telling Jamie Lannister to tell his sister Cersei that she was the one that murdered her awful son Joffrey. You can’t really get a better exit than that. Brutal to the very end.
That Jamie chose not to tell Cersei was probably a kindness, but…
Anyway, that wasn’t her swansong, this flick is her swansong. And what a lurid swansong it truly is.
We can’t, really, no matter our powers or how much we want it, change the past. Ellie’s trying to do something in the present, though, trying to find some way to make up for what happened to Sandy, and to countless girls like her. You can’t, though. Justice now can’t change the past. All the bleating now about hashtag Time being Up in the cinematic and television industries can’t change the fact that hundreds of thousands if not millions of women have been treated like shit for so many decades by the cruelty of bored men and a system that allows them to continue their bullshit with impunity.
And a bunch of boys and men have been chewed up and spat out too. What we can do is stop it in the present, something which isn’t really in Ellie’s wheelhouse either.
A lot of people are split on the last part of the flick, which seems to undermine the previous arguments and ideas about those days and what you could get away with if you promised a girl she was going to be the next Cilla Black or Dusty Springfield or Petula Clark. Reviewers especially seem to hate where the flick ends up, in some instances calling it a twist ending that even M Night fucking Shyamalan wouldn't dare serve up.
I don’t dislike where it goes. I was taken aback, considering what we were tricked into thinking was happening, but all the pieces were there all along, we just didn’t pick up on it the first time around.
And if you’re going to try to hit me with a totally literal interpretation, well, yes, I will concede that seeing visions of someone else’s experiences from sixty year’s ago isn’t possible as far as we know, but considering that doesn’t really happen, does the idea that one feel’s a ghost’s feelings make any more sense or seem at all more credible? If you’re not going to tolerate one, the other hardly makes a difference.
Our protagonists always have to have something that makes them either best suited to solve the puzzle, or the most vulnerable to allow the horrors of the past and present to overwhelm them and entertain us for 2 or so hours. Ellie is that poor unfortunate, but she might just survive as well, who knows.
It’s incredibly well shot, immaculately composed and put together. Every needle drop is exquisitely timed, every action, every mirrored shot, every visual element highlighted and underlined so we can get without exposition what Wright is intending from every frame.
It’s..a lot. I’m not going to call it a masterpiece, because there are some problematic elements I don’t have the balls to go into (to do with race), but it’s a very strong film, though not always engaging. It’s not a cold experience, though, and it’s mostly more mysterious than it is horrifying.
So. It’s your Last Night in Soho. How are you going to make it count?
7 times I wonder whether anyone was under any illusion that the early 60s were a good time for most people out of 10
“Has a woman ever died in my room?”
- “This is London. Someone has died in every room in every building and on every street corner in the city.” – fair point - Last Night in Soho