Last Night in Soho brings a refreshing new take on women and ambition

Last Night In Soho brings a refreshing new take on women and ambition
Last Night In Soho brings a refreshing new take on women and ambition /

This review contains spoilers.

A friend whose opinion I cherish told me to go into Last Night in Soho (directed by Edgar Wright) knowing as little as possible, so I listened. I realized as the lights went down that I was probably the only person in the audience who hadn’t even watched the trailer. In hindsight, I don’t think that was a mistake. Going to a midnight screening, on the other hand, probably was. (Yes, those trait-less faces haunted me all night.)

As I watched the first scene where a next-door girl plays at being a famous designer, I could not have predicted that the film would turn so dark and bloody after its seemingly regular coming-of-age first act. The irony isn’t lost on me that the film opens with Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) daydreaming about the bright future she wants to run towards and that the rest of it is about nightmares that took place in the past that Eloise is running from.

What looks like a nostalgia-imbued art piece is instead a horror/thriller with supernatural aspects involving time-traveling and haunting ghosts. The only lesson the film is looking to impart, I believe, is to beware of the romanticization of eras gone by: Eloise’s mistake is believing that the 60s are glamorous and romantic as an old record, a better place to get lost in than the present. Excited and naïve, she turns a blind eye to the dark glooming underneath.

The film could be perfectly split into two parts: desire and fear. In the first half we meet Eloise and her dream to succeed where her mother failed, go to London and become a fashion household name; at the same time we, along with Ellie, meet and are enraptured by Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy), whose ambition to make a name for herself leads the plot. The film’s second half is haunted by the consequences of that desire, and all that’s left for us is terror.

One thing I truly appreciate above all else was how creator, screenwriter, and director Edgar Wright did not buy into the narrative, quite popular in the 60s, of the country girl going to the city to make it big and being punished for it. Last Night in Soho is not a cautionary tale for young girls moving to London; it’s a love letter to the good and the bad that the city has to offer.

It’s clear by the parallel storylines that Ellie and Sandy are narrative foils for each other, but their roads do not diverge because one of them makes the wrong choice. Eloise is not Sandy because the circumstances are simply different. In the beginning, it’s impossible not to put down Ellie’s night escapades as Sandy as a dream, an alternate reality where she, Eloise, is living that glam life. At one point, the narrative tries to provide the red herring that Sandy could even be Ellie’s mother – even if, upon reasoning, the age difference probably wouldn’t add up. I remember thinking early on that Sandy was, in fact, Ms. Collins (played by the late Dame Diana Rigg in her last role), only to discard the idea halfway through, and to finally pick it up again in the tension-filled confrontation scene where we glimpse at her mail and, horrified, see “Alexandra Collins” as the recipient.

That first night, Sandy sweeps in out of the blue like a fairytale character – it looks like a prologue but it’s the interlude to tragedy, her story is already advanced. How come she’s so good but has never performed anywhere, knows no one? Does she have no family or friends? I even wondered, did she already reinvent herself or try this elsewhere? But she seems doe-eyed and naïve, yet determined, definitely unaware of where this path is taking her. Eloise too arrives in Soho with plenty of warnings, carrying her baggage in the image of her suicidal mother, and her entrance is far more clumsy than stringless Sandy could ever be.

Both women should be careful what they wish for and ask themselves how far they’re willing to go, but the film does not condemn them for having dreams. If Sandy is moved by ambition, Ellie is merely led by curiosity, the impossible dream to live another life, in somebody else’s shoes. She’s only looking for a romantic escape from her uneventful life and dives deep into Sandy’s, not because she wants fame, but rather because Sandy’s magnetic energy thrills her, enraptures her. Eloise feels that she was born in the wrong generation and has no interest in seeming cool and hanging out with Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen) and her friends because it doesn’t fit her idea of fun at all. Not like following Sandy around does. That is what drives her, what makes her step out of her comfort zone, what gets her into the horror story she finds herself into.

In films, it’s every small-town girl’s dream to move to a big city and find happiness, popularity, romance, and purpose. That is not hubris, nor is it overreaching. At the same time, Last Night in Soho says the same about Alexandra, who was corrupted – whether by the consequences of her ambition gone awry, whether by the abuses she suffered – and became a cold-blooded, serial murderer. Through Eloise, the film absolves Sandy. Even as the older woman is attempting to kill her, Ellie is still desperate to save her.

It’s an incredibly feminist narrative, based on the solidarity between women that stems from the collective trauma we share. Ellie understands because, in a way, she has lived it with Sandy, but the audience (the female-identifying part, at least) also sympathizes with Sandy, whether they can relate or not. I thought it was odd that a man had come up with the concept for this film, for he has captured the experience of women with such accuracy. Immense kudos also go to his co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns.

As Eloise doesn’t condemn Sandy for murdering all the men who abused her, the narrative too justifies her crimes. It’s intriguing because it does not look like Alexandra is haunted by her bloody past. Psychologically, she does not even seem to regret it: you would expect her to at least have moved out of the house. But no, aside from the hint at the beginning of the film that there is a foul smell in the house (from the rotting corpses of the men she has murdered), she seems to have completely dissociated from that other life.

Except she hasn’t. Even as an elderly woman, violence is now second nature to her. She does not hesitate to come up with a plan to drug Ellie and stage her fake suicide. The casual way she stabs Ellie and then John (Michael Ajao) speaks of a painful experience, and she does admit that she had to blur all those men’s faces in her head so they wouldn’t haunt her. In the end, Alexandra prefers to die in a fire rather than go to jail because, as she crudely admits, “I have been in a prison all my life.” If those words didn’t make you cry, you either don’t have empathy or are a man.

Despite not being a fan of the horror/thriller genre, I am glad I did not know a thing about this film when I went to see it. The brilliant writing and editing, accompanied by the beautiful photography and acting, make this movie one of the best stories I’ve seen on screen this year. Wright and Wilson-Cairns proved to be the perfect duo, just like McKenzie and Taylor-Joy. Matt Smith (Jack) played his role to perfection, and Dame Diana Rigg (RIP, I still can’t believe we lost her) commands the scene like no other. Michael Ajao (John) was a charming love interest and deserves to star in multiple rom-coms now. Sam Claflin was a welcome addition to the cast as young Lindsay; Synnøve Karlsen (Jocasta) aced her over-the-top character, and Jessie Mei Li (Lara, Jocasta’s friend) shone despite having such a small role. If you squint, you can even spot James and Oliver Phelps!

Last Night in Soho is about shared experience. It’s a story about flying too close to the sun and being determined to learn to live with the bruises. The plot throws you off balance and keeps you there. Don’t be fooled by the pretty visuals: it’s uncomfortable to watch, and it should be.

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