Earlier this month at the London Film Festival, I had the surreal opportunity to watch Last Night in Soho in the heart of Soho in central London. Queuing with a hundred others at 7am on a Saturday morning, I’m not sure I could ever replicate the giddy feeling of being in the very place the film was shot, feeling the tangible excitement even at the ridiculous hour.
And after securing the most coveted ticket of the festival, I have so many things to praise about Edgar Wright’s latest creation, Last Night in Soho. But I’m troubled by it too, and I think the two views can co-exist without contradicting each other. I think it’s fair to say it’s a film with some very good, even excellent parts, but I’m conflicted that Edgar Wright was the one to helm it, for reasons I’ll explain. Since the screening, I’ve been desperate to share my thoughts and have been solidifying them here.
Visually, this film is stunning: I loved the way it was shot, enjoyed Wright’s clear affection for his home city of 25 years. We’ve got gorgeous period pieces and the iconic Sean Connery Thunderball poster (1965) bombastically proclaiming itself on Soho’s cinema-fronts (specifically the Empire Cinema in Haymarket), enticing Thomasin McKenzie’s Ellie into a world of glamour. Soho’s cinematographer, Chung Chung-hoon, most recently lauded for his work on Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden in 2016, pulls off a beautiful, colourful palette. I thought the casting, too, was terrific, the dual roles and timelines working so well. But as a young woman staying in Soho, with all the recent murders of young women here, it affected me and no doubt many others in the same situation.
There are so many strands to talk about when we’re discussing Soho, from the Italian giallo subgenre to British sexploitation B-movies; from the ownership of the narrative on a female-centric feature to the precise locations and all their connotations. I’ll almost certainly only graze the surface of everything you must consider when watching the film, but it’s also been a journey digging into everything Soho has to offer. A pre-warning that my analysis will contain spoilers for the film: please proceed with discretion.
Celebrating the bright lights of Soho
We must begin with the good. To position ourselves in the world of the film, we follow 18-year-old aspiring fashion designer Eloise, or Ellie, Turner (Jojo Rabbit’s Thomasin McKenzie) preparing to leave home in rural Cornwall for university in London. She’s been raised by her grandmother in the wake of her mother’s death by suicide a decade prior, due to mental health struggles. While there are suggestions that she’s inherited some problems herself — she has recurring, ghostly visions of her mother — she’s undeterred from going out into the world and finding her place in London.
She’s also obsessed with the 60s, and the term anemoia — a fetishistic relationship with a period in history — is something Wright only retrospectively applied to the character after they’d wrapped. Ellie’s room is plastered with posters of Twiggy and Shirley McLaine; the inspiration for her clothes, her A-line dresses are all reminiscent of a bygone era. This sets her up for her later visions of the 60s, but it seems so inviting that she (and we, watching her) can’t resist dipping in.
McKenzie is an absolute dream in this film. Playing the sweet-natured country girl travelling to London to pursue her ambitions, she makes a journey familiar to many of us. As a West Country girl myself, I know exactly what she’s been through – have even sat on the same GWR train and stayed just a street away from the house where Eloise stays on Goodge Street. (When I heard the name in the screening, I couldn’t believe it.) Her character’s arc is something that many viewers will want to follow intently as she plays the role so convincingly.
Yet if it wasn’t for her talent and obvious perseverance to pursue what she believes in, you’d almost persuade her not to travel, not to ruin herself in the big city. Her grandmother tries to warn her that London ‘can be a lot’. It’s a line repeated throughout the film at different points by various characters, each of whom tries to explain away some of the shocking sights and incidents throughout the film. But as we hear from a cabbie when Eloise first arrives, ‘it’s the same old London underneath’. Indeed: this interaction with a taxi driver very quickly turns from a light chirpse into something much darker and more threatening, leaving Ellie shaken and unsure of herself in this overwhelming, frightening capital.
And that’s only the beginning: as she struggles through her first few nights in university halls of residence, encountering so much more sophisticated and worldly characters, she understandably feels alienated. Finally, her mean-girl roommate Jocasta (played scathingly by the excellent Synnove Karlsen) catalyses her to leave halls and find her own place: a bedsit on Goodge Street, Fitzrovia, owned by Ms Collins — the late, great Diana Rigg in her final performance.
For Ellie, the change of scene is welcome but it’s almost certainly the beginning of her real trouble. Framed at night by the intermittent glaring of red and blue neon from the neighbouring cafe, there’s a ghostly pallor to her room, and while she loses herself in a reverie of 60s-era showtunes and ballads, she’s whisked away to an alternate, fantasy London in the Swinging 60s. There, she both embodies and observes the character of Sandie (the scintillating Anya Taylor-Joy), a self-assured starlet and a triple threat, a savvy, aspiring performer.
Interestingly, Taylor-Joy was originally cast as Ellie, her star power from the recent Queen’s Gambit and dark persona exhibited in Cory Finely’s 2017’s Thoroughbreds no doubt recommending her. But as the production progressed and McKenzie was brought on board, they decided to switch the characters, and it’s often a tale of two halves when we look at the shy, unassuming contemporary student compared to the streetwise 60s star, but more and more they start to become one and the same.
We’re given no cumbersome exposition into Sandie’s character (who is she? why is she here?) but instead, economically, we jump right in. One night, she’s here, and immediately wanders purposefully into London’s fashionable Cafe de Paris nightclub. There, she encounters manager and businessman Jack (Matt Smith, bringing all the charm of his good-as-gold Doctor Who persona to the screen). But despite his facade, he proves himself to be callous and brutal, with Sandie (and in turn Ellie) soon regretting the consequences of their dizzying nighttime rendezvous.
Indeed, everything is not as it seems in this glittering world, and as Sandie is lured into a haven of crime and corruption, her shattering life begins to bleed out into Ellie’s reality. She struggles with her university commitments and suddenly everyone becomes a threat: as the lines blur, it’s not even clear whether or not she is safe in her dreams at night. The mysterious old man (Terence Stamp) who haunts her at work at the Toucan pub is a dangerous figure, despite the advice from her sagely boss (Margaret Nolan, also in her last feature.) Even the kindly and heroic efforts of fellow classmate John (Attack the Block’s Michael Ajao) can’t fully rescue her from her waking nightmare. And so, after this slow and detailed climb, we build and build to a climax of Oedipal proportions: it’s sensational, a showstopper, and we know of course that Wright is a fan of dazzling a crowd.
So powerful is the presence of London in this film, it feels like its own character. Not simply a static backdrop, it’s dynamic, seeming open and welcoming at first, and when Sandie sings Petula Clark’s 1964 showtune ‘Downtown’, it’s clear that ‘the music of the traffic in the city’ and ‘where all the lights are bright and neon signs are pretty’. So it entices Eloise from a safe and comfortable home. But on the flipside, when things start to turn ugly, and conspiracies lurk in the dark, then the city becomes a predator, and it closes in around Sandie and Eloise.
The film is also beautifully, visually inventive. There is an excellent use of past tense and the dual-role with Anya Taylor Joy as 1960s nightclub performer Sandie. The echoes of this tantalising dream that Eloise visits every night is absolutely enticing, and just the sort of thing you’d imagine a young girl living in the big city would fantasize about.
Dark side: the underbelly of London after hours
But we can’t talk about all the good without bringing in some of the film’s downsides. To make it clear, many of the criticisms I level against the film in this section are aimed at the subject matter rather than the filmmaking itself, but they should be stated.
Its timing with murders in London and the focus on young women is not fantastic. The murders just this year of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa (a matter of weeks ago) have been sickening, and taking place so close to the locations in the film, it just feels uncomfortably realistic. Of course it’s not something Wright could have predicted. But would the film have been any different if it had been produced later?
There are two discussions surrounding this. One is that, it’s clearly a fictional film. Horrors have come and gone over the years and we’re not expected to take them seriously. They’re an escape from reality, a deliberate distortion of reality. Many of the early German horrors of the post-WWI Weimar period, for example, used horror as a lament, and it’s been the same for many films that have followed over the last century. So in one sense, we don’t need to read it as any kind of truth at all and it’s just an unfortunate coincidence that these high-profile cases involving police in London have come to light at the same time.
The other argument is that London has always been seedy, and we have to expect that acts of violence are common. But why should we? In one segment in the film, Ellie searches her university library’s archives for female murders in the 1960s, and goes down a dark rabbit hole of ghostly faces, conspiracies and unsavoury stories. Clearly it’s not new to London, but it’s also not shaken off by characters repeatedly reinforcing the idea that London is just ‘a lot’ or ‘too much to handle’.
The point is, I can’t shake the feeling that this was just a little too real for my liking. Other critics I’ve spoken to have been similarly affected. The other discussion is that all the violence shown on screen is obviously exaggerated for dramatic effect, but it’s not a subject I can take lightly. It could have been any one of my friends, acquaintances, family members, and to see violence against women used so flagrantly on the screen is, to me, difficult to watch. In many ways these thoughts link back to my earlier coverage of Promising Young Woman this year. Both confront what happens when we take violence against women, and I wonder whether we’ve just become too well-adjusted to seeing it on screen that we’re desensitised. I never want that to happen.
It’s also a reason why, as I mentioned at the beginning, I’m conflicted about Wright helming the film. He’s notably worked in collaboration with Penny Dreadful’s Krysty Wilson-Cairns on the screenplay, but there’s something about the male gaze that feels evident here. Don’t take this the wrong way: I’m a fan of Wright and he’s brought so much joy over the years, whether it be his work on Hot Fuzz, Sean of the Dead, or his exec-produced Ant-Man. But when it comes to highly personal (and gendered) topics such as this, the contrast is quite marked. I found myself thinking that he had no right to tell this story, and it’s this ire I just can’t shake from my assessment of the film.
You can even counter-argue this by looking at the twist in the film (another warning: if you’ve not seen the film, turn back now!). When we realise Ms Collins’ true identity, and that the initial murder isn’t hers at all, we realise that Sandie, and perhaps even Ellie, have darker capabilities under their vulnerable exteriors. But should they have to go to these lengths to show it? Again, it’s not the end of the snags with the film: as Jesse points out in our review, there are problematic representations of mental health issues, and it can feel a bit uncomfortable without a clear explanation or resolution. So I think there is a lot to chew on when thinking about the film.
Giallo, sexploitation and British B-movies
That may be my opinion, but a more objective lens with which to view the film is through genre. In a Q&A, Wright spoke about his influences on the film, including Argento’s Suspiria (1977). This belongs to the Italian giallo genre, a horror-thriller-mystery hybrid. The pieces fit together so well in Soho: we have the heavy mantle of Eloise’s mother’s past and her fears that it will pass to her. We have her gradual unravelling, losing parts of her identity in the anonymity of London. We have her terrifying, too-real dreams at night, rapidly curdling from fantasy into nightmare, reeking of sordid encounters and exploitation.
If you’re reading Soho as a genre piece, it’s also strongly based on the sexploitation films of the 1960s: British B-movies that focus on the plight of women and unsavoury encounters, tied together by their seedy Soho setting. Building on the legacy of films like Blood on Black Lace (1964), Smashing Time (1967), A Taste of Honey (1961), Rag Doll (1960) and The Flesh is Weak (1957), it capitalises on the unique sexploitation B-movie genre that, at its heart, penalises women for daring to want a career and self-sufficient life. In the same way, Soho builds on Eloise’s (and Sandie’s) inherent fears and weaknesses, which come to prey on her in the form of a gorgeous fantasy. The lesson behind Soho is that nostalgia is dangerous: there’s no such thing as the perfect era.
Last Night in Soho is a move away from Wright’s previous genre pieces: he’s mastered the West Country comedy in Hot Fuzz and the comedy-horror Shaun of the Dead and At World’s End (his Cornetto trilogy). Even his Sparks documentary released earlier this year is a foray into a more informative style. He seems to be a fan of creating films from well-known pop pieces, with 2017’s Baby Driver leaning into the Simon & Garfunkel song, and Soho based on the 1968 song by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich (yep, that’s the full name of the band!) And Baby Driver might have been described as a musical, but Soho proves off-kilter to all these predecessors, and the kind of pizzazz he brings to the screen is a new avenue for him.
At its heart, I think Last Night in Soho is a film dedicated to London: it can be a beautiful place full of dreams and possibilities, but don’t trust it too closely, because it can tear them up and trample them out just as quickly. It’s a temperamental master. For Ellie, and Sandie, and countless others that came before and will come after them, the city is a place of mystery, intrigue, but darker, more dangerous forces are at work. As we’ve seen from other films of the giallo and B-movie genres, it can be a sordid world of exploitation and Wright does well to evoke the sense of unsavoury dealings in late-night establishments and red-light districts. It’s fitting that the film rolls credits with shots of Soho in lockdown: deserted streets, uninhabited. Wright took the opportunity to capture his idealised version of the centre of London before it populated again: untameable and unpredictable, Soho is the real character running the show.