“The price of getting what you want, is getting what once you wanted.”
I don’t get hyped for movies very often anymore. I’ve been burned too many times, and precious few movies stick with me for any significant length of time when I know some new must-see flick is coming out next week. But Edgar Wright is my absolute favorite director, and I can’t help getting hyped up every time he’s got a new film coming out. And of course it helps that this one just happens to star two of my favorite up-and-coming starlets.
Last Night in Soho stars Thomasin McKenzie (an honorary Portlander, far as I’m concerned — seriously, why haven’t you seen Leave No Trace yet?!) as Eloise “Ellie” Turner, a young woman living with her grandmother (Peggy, played by Rita Tushingham) in the quiet Cornwall countryside. I might add that Ellie’s mother killed herself when she was seven. The details are unclear, but it’s heavily implied that Ellie’s mother was driven to madness by her visions of ghosts. More importantly, Ellie herself is also a psychic who often sees visions of her deceased mother (played by Aimee Cassettari).
Anyway, Ellie is an aspiring fashionista and she just got accepted into the London College of Fashion. Thus the girl from out in the sticks moves to the bustling West End of London. It also bears mentioning that though Ellie has such modern conveniences as smartphones and wireless headphones, she primarily uses them to listen to music from the ’60s. Not that she actively disparages modern pop culture, but she positively idolizes London of the 1960s.
To recap, here we have a young woman who designs and makes her own clothing, she’s out of touch with modern trends, she’s a country girl who’s never really been to the city, and she has a family history of mental illness. For all of these obvious reasons, the passive-aggressive bullies descend pretty much immediately, with Ellie’s own roommate (Jocasta, played by Synnøve Karlsen) leading the pack.
The living situation on campus quickly becomes untenable, so Ellie rents out an apartment owned by Ms. Collins (the final onscreen role of the late, great Diana Rigg, who gets a dedication ahead of the opening credits). Of course the nostalgia-minded Ellie immediately hits it off with her elderly landlady, and falls head-over-heels in love with the apartment building that apparently hasn’t been renovated in the past 50 years. But then Ellie goes to sleep and our budding young psychic gets visions of a previous tenant.
Enter Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), an aspiring young starlet who came to Soho to make her fortune as a singer/dancer circa 1965 (going by the giant Thunderball poster seen in the trailers). This is a blonde bombshell with absolutely no experience, fresh off the bus into town, yet she simply walks into the biggest and fanciest club in town and asks to see the owner for an audition. This is how she crosses paths with Jack (Matt Smith), who quickly agrees to be her manager/lover.
(Side note: I only just now realized that “Sandie” might be a play on “Sandman”, as a figure who comes to Ellie in dreams. Probably a coincidence, but what a great one.)
Basically put, Sandie is everything that Ellie wants to be. Sandie is beautiful, talented, and bursting with confidence, so tenacious and charismatic that she can get basically anything she wants simply by walking into a room. And of course, Sandie is a denizen of the hallowed 1960s London that Ellie loves so much. In short order, Ellie dyes her hair blonde and takes on Sandie’s mannerisms. She models her fashion designs and schoolwork after Sandie’s dresses. Through her entire day, Ellie is simply passing time until she can fall asleep and live another day in Sandie’s heels.
Ellie wants to be Sandie. But she sure as hell doesn’t want to end up like Sandie.
See, Sandie (and Ellie by proxy) comes to learn that “working your way up from the bottom” can often mean “letting older and more powerful individuals take advantage of you”. They both come to learn that when it comes to dancing and dressing provocatively, the line between “empowerment” and “objectification” is perilously thin. Thus Jack becomes Sandie’s pimp, whoring her out to all manner of wealthy and influential older men, and Ellie is there to see all of it up close and personal.
(CONTENT WARNING: Though the film never goes full “The Last Duel” and no sexual assault is directly portrayed, we do get at least one especially bloody mid-coitus murder scene. Otherwise, the film mostly relies on the initial pickups and approaches from Sandie’s “clients” to get the point across.)
All of these experiences manifest as severe trauma for Ellie. In turn, this means that Ellie is deathly afraid of going to sleep and getting dragged down further into the sexual objectification of Sandie, which only compounds Ellie’s mental/emotional health issues. Her physical appearance degrades, and even her waking moments are flooded with visions of a dead and bloody Sandie, along with the malicious phantoms of Sandie’s gentleman callers. Thus Ellie becomes desperate to solve Sandie’s murder, but it’s an open question as to whether there will be anything left of Ellie’s life after the dust has cleared, or whether she’ll end up dead like her mother before her.
Ellie and Sandie are both young women who came to a strange new metropolis, confident that they would build a bright new career, both too proud to admit that they need help. And the simple truth is that everyone needs some manner of help to get by, especially in such a huge and fast-paced city as London. But on the other hand, neither one of them has any friends or connections in the city, and it’s not like Ellie can tell just anyone that she’s a goddamn psychic. It’s borderline impossible for either of them to know who they can trust, certainly not when there are any number of opportunists eager to chew them up and spit them out.
Jack is easily the most prominent case in point, as he seemed perfectly charming and promised to make Sandie into a star, but he only ever made her into a prostitute to advance his own station with the London elite. Things aren’t much better in the modern day, as Ellie’s first impression of London is made by a sleazy cab driver (played by Colin Mace). But then we’ve got John (Michael Ajao), a classmate who takes an immediate romantic interest in Ellie. He seems nice, and it seems like he genuinely wants to be helpful, but of course we can’t be confident that his intentions really are pure, and the limits of his altruism haven’t exactly been tested.
Oh, and there’s also the matter of the anonymous stranger played by Terence Stamp. The guy comes off as a sleazebag, but his intentions toward Ellie are frustratingly vague. It certainly doesn’t help that this may in fact be the same Jack who destroyed Sandie through a toxic relationship fifty years ago, but Ellie doesn’t have any proof of that beyond a few vague premonitions.
In summary, what we’ve got here is a ghost story set in the city of Jack the Ripper, Harold Shipman, and Amelia Dyer. London has seen over 2,000 years of great accomplishments and unspeakable tragedies. A city in which every room, every street corner, every last cobblestone has a hundred stories to tell. And here we have a film in which London — by way of a young psychic — is used to tell a tale about the glories and dangers of nostalgia. It’s a tale about confronting the ghosts of history, in which a young psychic must literally confront the ghosts of a city with a long and bloody history. It’s utterly brilliant.
What makes it even better is the fantastic mind of Edgar Wright. The direction is so incredibly great, I scarcely know where to begin. Wright’s uncanny touch with needle drops does the film all kinds of favors, especially with regards to selling the allure of 1960s nostalgia. There are numerous Ellie/Sandie transitions that showcase Wright’s painstaking attention to choreography. The editing, lighting, sound design, and more all work wonders to make the film appropriately spooky and get us into Ellie’s deeply disturbed headspace.
Granted, this is still a male filmmaker telling a quintessentially female story. That always results in a strange kind of indescribable disconnect that is sadly in full effect here. Luckily, Wright knew enough to co-write the script with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who previously collaborated with Sam Mendes to marvelous effect on 1917. That feminine perspective does the film all manner of favors — in fact, it often feels like the screenplay had certain details that might have been more properly developed by a female director. Still, this is a movie that absolutely needed Edgar Wright in the director’s chair — bringing on a female screenwriter is probably the best thing he could’ve done in this particular case, and I’m glad he knew enough to take that step.
Of course all due credit must be given to Thomasin McKenzie, who nails this role to a wall. She makes for a stellar horror lead in the “Final Girl” archetype, Ellie’s descent into madness is portrayed in sickening detail, and she perfectly rides that line where Ellie is credible as a naive young nobody fresh off the bus yet she might be a stunner with the right confidence.
Sandie is right in Anya Taylor-Joy’s wheelhouse, and I’m delighted that she’s reached that point. It really speaks to Taylor-Joy’s bottomless talent and charisma that she totally sells Sandie as a natural born star whose unlimited potential gets tragically wasted by all the men who misuse her. What’s more, anyone who saw The New Mutants (and if you didn’t, I don’t blame you in the slightest) would know that Taylor-Joy has tons of attitude in reserve and she can bring serious heat when she’s pressed hard enough.
Oh, and that a cappella rendition of “Downtown”? Beautifully haunting. Making that a centerpiece of the trailers was a good call.
Elsewhere in the supporting cast, Matt Smith is perfectly suited to play a seductive snake, and Terence Stamp is likewise perfect casting for a guy who’s disturbing in a way that’s hard to put into words. Diana Rigg makes for a stellar scene partner opposite McKenzie, gamely playing her role with aplomb from start to finish. Ellie’s classmates (most especially Jacosta) are mostly there as props to hold up the story, but Synnøve Karlsen and her colleagues do well enough on those terms.
But then we have Michael Ajao. This is a tough performance and a tough character to gauge. On the one hand, John is supposed to be a grounding influence. In a plot with so much insanity flying around, at a time when Ellie has no idea what’s real or what’s happening, John is indispensable to Ellie and to the audience as a fixed point. The unfortunate downside to this is that Ajao keeps getting blown off the screen by all the larger-than-life characters and phantasmagorical action happening around him. He’s certainly not bad by any means, but he’s nowhere near interesting enough (by design and necessity) to pass muster in this picture.
Last but not least, there’s the matter of the ending. Not to spoil anything, but I have so many mixed feelings about that ending. I like how the reveal itself was predictable, yet played itself out in a chilling and unpredictable way. The whole movie is about the dark underside of nostalgia, finding a way to build upon the past without being slave to it, and the ending is a solid culmination of both themes. But on the other hand, I’m not entirely convinced that the film earned its happy ending. There’s also the matter of the ghosts that spent so much of the film haunting Ellie — that whole subplot felt wishy-washy and half-assed. There was definitely some kind of resolution there, but hell if I know what actually got resolved with them.
Last Night in Soho has its flaws, but I still had a wonderful time with it. The lead performances are magnetic, the directing is inspired, and everything from a technical standpoint is geared toward crafting an innovative and spellbinding ghost story. I love how the setting is used in service of the themes — it’s a cautionary tale about the addictive and destructive side of nostalgia, but delivered in a way that honors and respects the long history of London. Moreover, the theme about the addictive and potentially destructive allure of nostalgia dovetails beautifully with this coming-of-age story about a life’s dream that steadily turns into a nightmare.
Don’t let this one pass you by.