Sometimes the horror is real in film, and sometimes it’s imagined, and sometimes when done well, it can be both. Last Night in Soho, the latest film by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver), walks that fine line between real and imagined quite deftly in presenting the fantastical while also keeping the film grounded with issues that were relevant in the past, and yet remain relevant today. Last Night in Soho is gritty, whimsical, and horrible and I absolutely enjoyed it.
Last Night in Soho follows Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) as she leaves her England home in quaint-looking Redruth, Cornwall, for bigger dreams in London at the London College of Fashion. Eloise is an aspiring fashion designer and is obsessed with the culture of the sixties. Eloise is the type of character who would be instantly astounding to me if I met her in real life. Eloise is unique and a dreamer, but she knows what she wants and is willing to work to go after it. Being obsessed with the sixties makes her all the more interesting, niche, and endearing. The movie begins with Eloise dancing out some fantasy of being in the sixties, all while wearing a dress she made out of newspaper; being as unique as Eloise comes at a cost, though. She suffers from hallucinations, mental illness runs in her family, and her mom killed herself when Eloise was seven due to mental illness. The thin line between crazy and brilliant applies to Eloise; her uniqueness and strength in her conviction stem from the same source as her weakness.
London turns out to be much more than Eloise was prepared for in more ways than one. Eloise has trouble immediately adjusting to life in London. Eloise finds out pretty quickly that she doesn’t fit in with many of her classmates and her roommate Jocasta (Synnove Karlsen) and her behavior towards Eloise is especially cringe-inducing. Eloise manages to make one connection, though with a guy named John (Michael Ajao) and their awkward moments together lighten up Eloise’s otherwise difficult adjustment to London life. Eloise escapes her living situation by finding a bedsit run by an older woman named Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg – in her final performance before passing away). Immediately Eloise starts having vivid dreams that take place in 1960s London. In these dreams, Eloise is watching or, in some cases, literally a woman who goes by the name Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). Sandie, like Eloise, is in London to pursue a dream, albeit Sandie has aspirations of becoming a big-time singer. At first, Sandie’s world is a wonder for Eloise, who revels and wonders at actually being so present in a time she admires so much. However, it isn’t long before Sandie meets Jack (Matt Smith) at a London club looking to headlining. Jack manages talent and wants to help Sandie so long as she is willing to work her way up. Jack at first appears to be genuine in his interest in Sandie, but things go from great to terrible in short order for Sandie and “working her way up” unfortunately turns out to be something else entirely.
Sandie’s world eventually bleeds into Eloise’s waking life and not for the better. Eloise is a literal witness to Sandie and the trap she has found herself in. Eloise recognizes locations in London that she sees in her dreams involving Sandie and at least one suspicious character crosses Eloise’s path in current day London who may or may not be from these dreams/visions. Ghosts from Sandie’s world begin to haunt Eloise and without giving too much away, this all leads to one of the best-realized murder scenes I have seen in a movie the last couple of years. Finding resolution of this dream/vision murder (and restoring some sense of normalcy to her life) then becomes all-consuming for Eloise narrowing the film’s focus from then on.
Last Night in Soho is particularly poignant with much of what has been happening in the Me Too movement of recent years. Recent years don’t even sum it up, though. The film themes have been playing out far longer than the Me Too movement has been around. I mean, it’s barely been 100 years since women got the right to vote in the US. So, if women are still dealing with this today, I can only assume that the issue must have been even more prevalent in the sixties. This film goes further by asking us to look at the repercussions of abusive and manipulative behavior. One monster makes another monster and on it goes until someone finally says enough and breaks the chain. Unfortunately, people being treated differently and used and abused for what or who they are is part of our lineage. I try to be the optimist on the subject and hope for and do what I can to positively impact the world and hope that collectively the world can learn from its mistakes, but it’s hard not to be skeptical. Last Night in Soho is thankfully more optimistic than I. Mental illness plays its part as well in this film and though it is ever-present, it takes more of a back-seat and plays more like a fine mist as opposed to a torrential downpour.
All due credit to those involved in this film for its technical merits. London is a highlight of this film and every shot looks great and much of the music is from Eloise’s much-loved era adding to its authenticity. Obviously, this isn’t Edgar Wrights’s first film, but it is the first film of his that I have seen that is as dark as this one can get. I would hope to see more films with a darker tone from Edgar Wright based on how well this one played. And, as an experienced director with great support, the movie looks and sounds fantastic. All of the actors play their parts well, but Thomasin McKenzie owns much of the film. This is partly due to her character of course, just being the main character with the most screen time. But McKenzie plays the back and forth of her character and her condition in a way that is believable and at the very least elicits empathy. Anya Taylor-Joy (who was supposed to play Eloise) does an excellent job of portraying a Sandie who starts the film so hopeful and eventually takes a darker turn. Much of the film happens in the sixties and it looks great. Keep in mind I was neither alive nor in London, much less, in the sixties, so I assume that all care was taken to make the film as faithful to the real London in the sixties as possible.
I was looking forward to Last Night in Soho and was not disappointed. The film earned its status as a ‘horror’ film for me and it even had a few tricks up its sleeve that I wasn’t initially expecting. It’s at once a character study and an observation on women’s treatment as a whole wrapped in my favorite genre. Eloise and Sandie are two and the same, separated by time and circumstance. They’re both dreamers and both go to London looking to pursue their dream. And in so doing, Sandie becomes Eloise’s muse, and Eloise becomes Sandie’s witness.