The following piece will dive into major spoilers for Last Night in Soho. For those who want a more general take on the film, check out our spoiler-free review here.
Last Night in Soho is such an effervescent piece of cinema that it’s hard to figure out where to start praising it. One could easily spend a few hours on the musicality that permeates through the editing. Another could spend that time dissecting how it bows down to the cinema of old – as most Edgar Wright movies do. I, meanwhile, would like to highlight its decision to tell its story with two main characters. After all, this is a tried-and-true way to make the audience compare and contrast what they are watching. But what makes this example noteworthy is how it uses the various viewpoints to confront how complicated the past really is.
In order to have a full grasp of the past, we first have to establish the present. And that’s where the film opens, as it introduces us to one of its main characters, Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie). Upon receiving an acceptance letter from a fashion college in Soho, she packs her bags and heads toward the big city. But just as quickly, she discovers how hectic and alienating this new life turns out to be. It’s bad enough that she encounters a taxi driver that makes a creepy remark about her body. Worse than that, though, is how her fellow classmates seem to not want to be around her. Even her roommate Jocasta (Synnove Karlsen) makes the bet that Eloise will harm herself by the end of the year.
It’s no surprise that Eloise soon searches for a place of her own. While the apartment she finds isn’t in the greatest condition, it’s quiet enough that she decides to settle here. Furthermore, she strikes a friendly relationship with her landlord Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg). Little does she know that her journey only gets wilder from here. Every time she sleeps in this apartment, she dreams about what Soho was like in the 1960s. More importantly, she takes the vantage point of the other main character, Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). Like most aspiring singers, Sandie must go up the ladder before reaching her dream job. But what she did not prepare for is that this ladder basically forces one to be a prostitute. Not pleased with this discovery, she ruffles feathers with her manager Jack (Matt Smith) in a way that takes a turn for the worse.
For a solid portion of the 117-minute runtime, Last Night in Soho places its efforts into equating Eloise with Sandie. This is most obvious with the various dream sequences, as Wright often makes Eloise a literal reflection of Sandie. But the similarities between characters go far beyond the major visual cues. The first is that both are individuals that feel like they don’t belong. In Sandie’s case, she is the one performer under Jack’s care that doesn’t want to take part in sex-related activities. In Eloise’s case, she does not cross paths with many people who have compassion for her. The closest she has to a friendly acquaintance is her classmate John (Michael Ajao). Because of that, she is the kind of person who would rather sit in a corner during a house party than anything else.
Another thing that ties them together is their largely unpleasant experiences with men. With Sandie, we see her meet dozens of men who only care about her as a sex object. On top of that, they all approach her for the first time with the same question and response: “what’s your name” and “that’s a lovely name”. So not only are they predatorial, they have a mindset that never wavers from person to person. With Eloise, we see her cross paths with not only the taxi driver, but also an old man (Terence Stamp) who begins to follow her wherever she goes. In all fairness, Eloise does not remotely suffer the same level of abuse as Sandie. Nevertheless, the isolating effect that men can have on women remains just as palpable.
It’s here that Last Night in Soho starts to tackle the idea of the past haunting the present. For one thing, Eloise’s dreams get so vivid that she begins to see them as a reality. In fact, her vision of Jack murdering Sandie is enough for her to report the crime to the authorities. As expected for someone with a family history of mental illness, the officers have a hard time taking her seriously. Regardless, she does whatever she can to seek justice for Sandie’s death. And if the dreams weren’t enough, the various men that abused Sandie begin to follow Eloise in her actual life. But instead of the men’s spirits appearing in their flesh and blood form, they have a rather ghoulish appearance, complete with missing mouths.
It also becomes clear that the past has the potential to lay the groundwork for someone in the present. Early in Wright & Krysty Wilson-Cairns’s screenplay, we find out that Eloise’s mother suffered from mental problems to the point where she killed herself. So throughout Eloise’s search for justice, there is the fear that she will succumb to the same fate as her mother. Many people believe that her account of Sandie’s death is real, and it’s not like she has concrete proof of it. Not to mention, she later has an incident where she almost kills her former roommate in a library. But just because Eloise has the potential to fall into the deep end does not mean it is part of her fate. If anything, she successfully convinces John that her experiences are valid.
Grappling with the past gets more complicated once we learn about what really happened to Sandie. To Eloise’s credit, her account of Sandie’s murder has an air of validity to it. What she did not know is that it was not Sandie: The Person that died, but Sandie: The Personality. Specifically, the Sandie that had an wide-eyed innocence towards the world of stardom. While the dozens of men withered the old Sandie away, a far more vengeful one emerged. This time, she uses her real name Alexandra Collins – which means yes, Eloise’s landlord was Sandie the whole time! Like Eloise, Alexandra tried to seek justice of her own. But instead of reporting to other people, she simply murdered all the men that treated her like an object. As such, the ghosts haunting Eloise are actually there because they died at the hands of Alexandra, not because they haunted Sandie.
A more conventional take on the story would just focus on how men are the embodiment of evil. But Wright and Wilson-Cairns are not content to paint a scenario that simple. With Alexandra’s troubled past, we get to see how far someone will go to answer for men’s crimes. And with Eloise’s journey, we get to see the benefits and drawbacks of taking a calmer approach to it. While it takes longer for justice to be served this way, at least it won’t involve a high body count. Even though Alexandra justifies her crimes, the existence of the ghosts suggests that she may have taken things too far. And with Alexandra realizing this, she decides to stay in the burning building as a punishment.
Before seeing Last Night in Soho, I hoped for a film bursting with style and nostalgia. And after seeing it, I can’t say I didn’t get that. However, I did not expect the film to use its style and nostalgia to uncover a seedy history that people would rather bury. And with two timelines at the center, we get to see everything that has changed and everything that has stayed the same. As a result, it keeps finding ways to unsettle the audience from a narrative and thematic level. Both on the page and on the screen, it’s a gripping horror-thriller that confronts the layered ugliness of humanity. I don’t expect everyone to consider this as Wright’s finest work, but for all the reasons stated earlier, I am proud to make this one mine. – Mark Tan
Last Night in Soho is now playing in theaters.