Title: Last Night in Soho
Director: Edgar Wright
Writer: Edgar Wright, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Stars: Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smitt
It might sound a little like a trite cliche, but there is no denying that one of the main characters in Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho is London itself. The hazy lights and oppressive shadows of its rain-slick streets, dark alleyways and dingy nightclubs seem ever-present and oppressive in this different and unorthodox ghost story.
Cliches aside, Edgar Wright has given us something that feels both new and familiar. The choice to tackle sexual abuse and assault in the 60s entertainment industry seems apt, no matter what decade we’re in. And the ghosts of this particular tale are, therefore, of the worst kind.
And on a personal note, despite being a ghost story with clear and sometimes blatant supernatural elements, the film felt almost too real for me. I started my film education as a student at the London Film School, an education that was cut short after a traumatic experience in Soho. I will leave it at that, but I admit that it might have affected how I viewed this film. To be sure, my own experience has given me a love/hate relationship with England’s capital.
Ghosts of the Past
In Last Night in Soho, we meet 20-something Eloise “Ellie” Turner (played by Thomasin McKenzie), dreaming of the swinging 60s and with high hopes of becoming a fashion designer. After her mother committed suicide some years ago, Ellie lives with her caring grandmother in the countryside of Cornwall. Ellie’s mother sometimes appears to her in mirrors, hinting at perhaps more than unresolved trauma and a high-strung imagination in our wide-eyed protagonist.
Then, the letter Ellie hopes for arrives. Ellie is accepted into a fashion designer school in London, and she is soon whisked away in a taxi, her grandmother waving goodbyes as she departs. London can be overwhelming, she is told. Her hinted-at depression and the aforementioned high-strung imagination and unresolved trauma aren’t always a good combination with one of the largest and most hectic cities in the world. And if you’re after peace and quiet and a good night’s sleep, you might have come to the wrong place.
Ellie soon decides to leave the noisy student dorms and rents a room with a seemingly friendly but old-fashioned landlady, Ms. Collins (played by the late and great Diana Rigg). The noise of the student parties is exchanged with the neon lights shining in through the old windows. Ellie soon falls asleep and dreams of Sandie (played by Anya Taylor Joy), the up-and-coming singer aspiring to take the 60s London stages by storm. And when she discovers that she, in some ways, becomes Sandie, the dreams become her nighttime reality.
But the dreams turn to nightmares, and soon Sandie/Ellie is forced into a nighttime 60s world of prostitution, sexual harassment and assault. Her “agent” (pimp” would be a more honest description), Jack (played by Matt Smith), sells the beautiful and alluring Sandie to older men for deals and favors. And soon, this dream reality starts bleeding into Ellies present. Strange, faceless figures start following her in the streets of London, making her life in London miserable.
The Graves, All Gaping Wide
I suspected… no, I knew, going into the press screening for Last Night in Soho, that it would be difficult to watch. The film is a somewhat unorthodox ghost story. Here, Soho itself is the haunted house, its rooms, each having terrible events happening in them, are the clubs and alleyways. There are traumas and murders, often unresolved, and strange characters to meet, all with their dark pasts. Some might help, others might hinder. This is London, we are reminded. In every room, in every bed and in every alleyway, someone has died.
Thomasin McKenzie grabs our attention from the first scene and convinces us with her wide-eyed and childlike wonder as the nerdy and traumatized Ellie. Her charisma is unmistakable, and it is hard to decline the invitation to tag along on her trip to London. Even when she sees her dead mother in the mirror, she freely admits it to her grandmother Peggy (played by Rita Tushingham). Instead of being off-put by the strangeness of such a conversation, Ellie is believable, and we feel for her. Is it her way of coping with loss or something less natural?
Despite the different take on the classic ghost story in Last Night in Soho, there are cliches to be found here too. A group of girls in Ellie’s class gang up on her, talking behind her back, generally being nasty and sarcastic. This is a staple of college film drama, and we’ve seen it before, many times. It served little purpose other than enforcing that Ellie is an outsider in the urban and hard-drinking student culture. The leader of this gang of girls, Jocasta (played by Synnøve Karlsen), and her hangers-on, are more stereotypical archetypes than well-developed characters.
There are other known faces here too. Veteran actor Terence Stamp is excellent as the creepy and seemingly always present character just called Silver Haired Gentleman in the credits. His character’s appearance is Ellie’s hint that everything might not be completely regular and day-to-day with her stay in London.
The Nightmares of Sexual Abuse
Last Night in Soho offers no clear explanation of why Ellie shifts into the body of the singer and party girl Sandie whenever she falls asleep. Director Edgar Wright invites us to go with the flow and accept Ellie’s supernatural double nightlife as it is. And for the most part this works. The film shifts convincingly into the dream-like (and often nightmarish) scenes set in a blistering, neon-lit 60s London. The references are everywhere and the 60s music rarely stops playing when Ellie inhabits the memories of Sandie.
Anya Taylor-Joy plays Sandie through a facade of alluring sexuality that hides both desperation and ambition. It is heartbreaking to see how her agent Jack treats her and gradually accepts her lot; a girl’s way to some measure of fame in show business through the acceptance of sexual abuse. Accept it if you want to get anywhere in the business! It is the way things are done, Jack tells her.
In this way, Edgar Wright makes Last Night in Soho a story about sexual harassment and abuse in the entertainment industry and elsewhere. Although the hows and whys of the dreams and time jumps are never fully explained, the message comes through as strong as it can be. Ellie’s first encounter with a cabbie in London reminds us that it is not limited to the past. Making it a ghost story set in two different periods enhances this message even further when we see the past through Ellie’s modern eyes.
The Girl in the Mirror
The scenes where Ellie inhabits the memories of Sandie are told through the genius use of mirrors and reflections. Ellie sees Sandie in the reflections in her dreams, and they soon change places. The use of mirrors becomes an essential element in the story, and in a way, Ellie becomes trapped in Sandie’s memories. When she tries to escape, the memories come after her, bleeding through into her reality.
Last Night in Soho works best when it plays up the mysteries and the creepy atmosphere. Even though it works most of the time, it drags a little bit at times in the middle, and towards the end, there was a lot of running and screaming that I found broke with the otherwise excellent atmosphere. But all in all, the atmosphere works, and when things go sideways for Ellie/Sandie, Thomasin McKenzie, and Anya Taylor-Joy keeps us engaged in the story to an excellent and heartwrenching conclusion.
Edgar Wright might have reminded me of some of my own old ghosts with Last Night in Soho, but despite that, it is a film I will gladly watch again.