Synopsis: When small town country mouse Eloise ‘Ellie’ Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) gets accepted into a prestigious London fashion school, it looks as though all her dreams are coming true. However, the shock of big city life and a posse of mean girls led by roommate Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen) soon drive Ellie away from her dormitory and into a bedsit in Soho rented out by kindly but cranky landlady Mrs Collins (Diana Rigg). Once night falls, Ellie finds herself transported back to 60s London, inhabiting the life of glamorous lounge singer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her quest to be a star. Before long, the visions soon take on a darker tinge, as Ellie must battle to discover the truth about what happened to Sandie and to keep her fractured psyche from shattering.
1. Strap in. This is going to be a long one.
The Good Stuff
2. Edgar Wright is one of the few filmmakers that I would call myself a ‘fan’ of. I’ve seen (almost) every movie (1) he’s ever made (including his TV show Spaced), and I love (almost) all of them. He is one of the true originals working today, with his technical wizardry matched by his boundless creativity and his uncanny ability to use genre tropes as metaphors for meaningful storytelling. So you can believe me when I tell you that Last Night In Soho is one of the bigger disappointments I’ve experienced in a cinema, not just because it falls well short of Wright’s high standards, but because it falls short of the promise of its wonderful first act. It’s not quite a disaster, because Wright’s gifts ensure at bare minimum a great deal of surface pleasure, but by the final act, Last Night In Soho collapses into a hodgepodge of images and ideas, and while some are decent (and most are not), it never adds up to more than an incoherent mess. This one doesn’t go off the rails, it drives straight into the ocean.
3. So what went wrong? Perhaps the best place to start is to think about what went right, and work from there. The most obvious plus point – Wright’s craftsmanship is still at god-tier level, especially his unparalleled editing skills. On a micro level, Wright pulls out some of those montages that by now have become synonymous with his films, such as the first montage of Ellie traveling into London, which resemble’s Hot Fuzz‘s bravura sequence of traveling from London to Sandford in reverse, with an empty carriage and deserted stations gradually being replaced by a crowd of commuters and bustling platforms. Further evidence for the brilliance of the editing comes in the montage where Sandie, now forced into sex work, is approached by dozens of faceless men, each of them responding with a lascivious ‘that’s a lovely name’ to all the aliases she gives them. On a macro level, the film just moves. Nothing drags, every shot is exactly as long as it needs to be, and there is an everpresent kineticism to affairs that propels things along without ever feeling rushed.
4. Beyond the editing, the shot composition and camera movements are close to perfection, with Wright goosing the camera with juuuuuuuuust the right amount of CGI to create some of the most stylish shots of his filmography. The one-take dance sequence where Ellie and Sandie switch back and forth will get all the attention, but I’m also partial to the shot where the camera goes under the covers with Ellie and pulls back to an impossible degree to indicate that she has been transported to the 60s. Some more of Wright’s signatures that are in this movie – the tight close-up of objects that metaphorically represent our characters (Ellie’s shot glass in the first party scene is visibly different from the rest), whip-pans into gags and jump-scares, unique scene transitions, expressionistic angles, and oh god I haven’t even pointed out how fantastic the music is. I can go on in this vein for quite a while, because Wright just understands visual storytelling in a way that few filmmakers do.
5. He is also aided by a talented cast, anchored by the precocious McKenzie (spectacular in 2018’s Leave No Trace) who serves up a gutsy and endearing heroine. It is a really quite excellent performance, particularly in her sense of control even in the scenes where Ellie is going insane. All facets of the character, from timid ‘country mouse’ to plucky amateur detective to scream queen are delivered with aplomb, with the most impressive aspect being just how well McKenzie sells Ellie’s loneliness and yearning. On the other hand, there is Anya Taylor-Joy, who could fuel interstellar travel with her star power by this point. This is a bona fide ‘movie star’ performance, and Taylor-Joy (whose stock has risen into the stratosphere over the last few years) is so radiant, and tears into her scenes with such ferocity, you almost forget that she is barely given a character to play (2) The rest of the cast does decent work, with Matt Smith appropriately slimy and charming as Sandie’s boyfriend/pimp, and screen legend Diana Rigg (in her final performance) is great in her few scenes.
6. Wait a second, I hear you say. It looks great. It sounds great. The actors are great. Doesn’t that make this movie, y’know … great? What’s missing?
The Bad Stuff
7. It’s the writing. Last Night In Soho is a house of cards, with all its surface-level joys built on a foundation so shoddy, it could topple over with a gentle breeze. And here’s the thing – the writing in this movie is so bad, that I kinda have to break it down on three different levels, namely:
(i) Level 1 – nuts and bolts stuff, basic plotting, character motivations, etc.
(ii) Level 2 – story structure, how the film is sequenced, the narrative arc of the entire film, the emotional journey the filmmakers are intending to take the viewer on.
(iii) Level 3 – the ideas of the film, what the filmmakers are trying to say, what kind of themes and message they want the viewer to take away, and how the film conveys these concepts.
Last Night in Soho fails at all three levels.
[MAJOR SPOILERS FROM HERE ON]
8. The first major crime against coherence this film commits is that the twist makes no sense. On a Level 1 analysis, there are enough plot holes in this reveal to give this reviewer trypophobia. The first and most obvious one is that it’s a real stretch of the imagination to buy that Sandie/Mrs Collins has been murdering dozens of men over the decades and hiding them in the house without anyone noticing. Ignoring the matter of decomposition (how long can a body be hidden under the floorboards without rotting?), there is also the fact that we are expected to buy that multiple men have gone missing with nary a hint of suspicion beyond a handwaved statement of ‘oh Soho in the 60s was a dangerous place’. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like doing this Cinemasins nitpicky bullshit, but sometimes a plot hole is just far too massive to circumvent. Wright doesn’t even have the excuse of ‘oh it’s a horror movie, crazy things happen’, because the universe that he creates outside of Ellie’s visions is a hyper-realistic one, that I would say is even less off-kilter than the worlds of The Cornetto Trilogy, Scott Pilgrim, or Baby Driver. Those other movies presented an entire setting gone askew, be it a zombie apocalypse consuming the world or the deliberate choice to film even the most mundane event as a comic book splash panel. But outside of Ellie’s supernatural visions, everything is presented realistically, from the university to the pub to the police, and so the decision to have this giant blind spot in the middle of the movie is all the more jarring. As a good counterexample, consider both versions of Suspiria (3), which use cinematography, writing, and production design to present settings that are so bizarre that it makes a perverse sort of sense that a bunch of witches could set up a dance studio in the middle of Freiburg/Berlin without anyone noticing anything wrong.
9. Beyond that, the character motivations (outside of Ellie) simply make no sense. This speaks to a wider problem, in that aside from our protagonist, there are no characters to speak of. Everyone is either a plot device or a thinly-sketched caricature. The worst of both worlds is Michael Ajao’s John, who is so laughably forgiving and understanding as Ellie’s love interest that it teeters on the verge of farce. Ellie freaks out in the middle of sex? No problemo. Ellie starts shredding her work in class? Typical lady problems, amirite? Ellie tries to stab a classmate? Well which one of us hasn’t been there? In a perverse way, John serves almost like a commentary of the ever-forgiving wife/girlfriend character, and I wish I could say this was Wright’s attempt to shed some light on the ridiculousness of this trope, but that requires a level of generosity I cannot muster. Another major issue is Terence Stamp’s character, whose purpose is to serve as a red herring, but this requires so much convolution that it would have been much better to cut this character from the movie. Again, we have another character that behaves in the most mindboggling fashion simply to service the plot, with Stamp being alternately sinister/leering/creepy for (and I cannot stress this hard enough) absolutely no reason whatsoever beyond ‘this needs to happen for the narrative to proceed’.
10. This brings me to Level 2, and how the film fails to tell a coherent emotional story. As earlier mentioned, the first act of Soho is fantastic, and part of it is because its narrative is rooted in sound emotional logic. Ellie the country mouse goes to London, only to find it does not match up to her fantasies, after which she retreats into a dream of 60s London (which may or may not be another fantasy) and has a whale of a time. This starts to affect her subconsciously, as she changes herself to resemble the glamorous Sandie and retreats even further from her life in the present. All great stuff, especially as Wright (and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns) imbue the opening with a great deal of verisimilitude. Beyond the accuracy of the look of the residence halls and lecture theatres (which I can attest to, having studied in the area), there is a sharp sense of universal empathy for Ellie’s situation, of feeling like an outsider or suddenly being a small fish in a very large pond. The problem is that this thread, which I contend is the overriding emotional stake of the first act, is very abruptly dropped the minute the movie swerves into murder mystery territory. Sure, Ellie is still bullied by the mean girls and still has no friends, but that is small potatoes compared to the nightmarish visions of Sandie’s debasement and the spectral figures haunting her. This is one of the major issues with the film, as the two threads do not cohere at all. In interviews, Wright has stated that one of the themes he wanted to tackle with Soho was the tendency to romanticise the past, and to use the movie to show the folly of doing so. That’s all well and good, except (and I cannot stress this enough again) Ellie never learns that lesson. By the end, her designs still crib from the 60s, and if anything, her connection to Sandie grows stronger, with Sandie taking an equal place with her dead mother in her visions and her reaching a moment of understanding with Sandie/Mrs Collins.
So the original (successful) emotional throughline of retreating from a situation of loneliness and isolation is abandoned, and its supposed replacement – learning not to romanticise the past – is never successfully executed. What then, is Last Night in Soho left with as a foundation?
The Ugly Stuff
11. Hoo boy. This is going to be difficult. First off, cards on the table. I believe that sex work is real work. This is not to say that sex work, in its current form (which in itself is multi-faceted) is flawless, far from it. As things stand, sex work is rife with misogyny and abuse, as seen by the scourge of human trafficking and coercion (which itself does not fall under the technical category of ‘sex work’, but I understand that might come across as pedantic to some). Currently, the people most involved in sex work tend to be the least protected in society (people of colour, the LGBT+ community, those living in poverty), and as such, the potential (and reality) for abuse is astronomical. However, it is this reviewer’s philosophical and political belief that this is not a problem of sex work per se, but rather due to the absence of legal and societal protection for not just sex workers, but sex work itself, thus resulting in most of it taking place outside the law, with the brunt of any legal repercussion falling upon the sex workers instead of those who abuse them. This reviewer also believes that the supposed ‘demeaning’ nature of sex work stems from an overly puritanical attitude to sex, and that under capitalism, there is no discernible difference from a sex worker ‘selling their body’ to eke out a living to a coal miner/fast food worker/nurse/insert your preferred form of wage slavery ‘selling their body’ to eke out a living. Hence, what the term ‘sex work is real work’ means is that, to quote the American Civil Liberties Union, ‘Sex workers deserve the same legal protections as any other people. They should be able to maintain their livelihood without fear of violence or arrest, and with access to health care to protect themselves.‘
So … why is all this necessary? Because Last Night in Soho has some serious problems in dealing with sex work.
12. To wit, the character of Sandie is not a sex worker, but a trafficked individual, coerced by her pimp Jack into prostitution. However, the film does not appear to make this distinction clear, nor does it seem to want to do so. All sex work in Soho is presented as coercive, from Sandie’s own experience to a trippy tracking shot in the back of the Rialto cabaret (we’ll swing round to that again soon) featuring all the dancers getting high, being brutalised, or crying about being tricked. In dealing with this topic, the film has all the nuance of a rampaging boar. All sex workers (all cishet white women) are constantly being preyed upon by all johns (all cishet white men). It’s … not the most subtle take, and one that I would argue diminishes its good intentions to the extent that it actually becomes regressive in terms of its gender politics. The reveal that Ellie’s visions of murder were actually Sandie murdering her johns actually creates a huge moral quandary, (4) because it means that when she killed them, both Sandie and the men were engaged in a mutually agreed upon transaction with full agency. And our protagonist’s response to that is “I understand why you killed them”? That, as the kids say, is not a good look.
13. This lack of nuance permeates the entire film’s take on sex work and gender relations. All sex work is wrong, wrong, WRONG. As earlier mentioned, when Ellie first sees Sandie perform at the Rialto, her immediate response is shame and revulsion. And here’s the thing – it’s arguably not even sex work, but something more akin to a cabaret or burlesque show. It is then followed up by that backstage tracking shot I mentioned earlier, which again, reveals the black-or-white perspective Soho has – even something that is not technically sex work is portrayed in the most degrading and abject fashion, with no element of consent or agency whatsoever. And, just to head off criticisms that I am attacking the film for not cohering to my politics, this is a storytelling issue as well, because if the worlds of your story are confined to only heaven and hell, where else is there left to go once you’ve crossed the threshold from one to the other?
14. As such, the film’s take on gender relations cannot help but be as simplistic. All the men in this film are presented as leering, drooling abusers, with the lone exception (John) being such a caricature of a ‘nice guy’ that it barely passes muster. Don’t get it twisted, this is not an attempt to #notallmen this movie. I’m not particularly interested in standing up for my poor besieged gender and criticising Last Night in Soho for bullying the male population. Rather, my point is that this overly naive (that’s the nicest word I can use) take on gender ends up tanking any noble intentions this film has. It is clearly intended to be a feminist-leaning film, to portray the travails that women of past and present have had to go through, but when said travails are so facile to the point of being cartoonish, it loops back around to almost being regressive. All women are pure fragile creatures who need to be protected from the evil abusive men. This is less feminism than the right-wing distortion of feminism. There is an almost slasher-movie puritanism this movie has towards sex – Jocasta’s mean girl bona fides are established by her having (gasp) casual sex on (gasp) the first night at uni while (gasp) another person is in the room. Ellie’s sole onscreen sexual experience is conflated with the spirits of Sandie’s johns assaulting her, which is given an extra dose of tone-deafness by associating it with her having sex with a black man. Again, I need to point out (5) that Last Night in Soho does not fail because it does not match my politics, it fails because it is unable to cohere with its own themes. Above all, the ultimate failure of the movie is signified in Sandie, who never comes across as a real character but instead as a symbol for the film to hang every one of its muddled messages on. Taylor-Joy does her best, but even her movie-star magnetism cannot obscure the fact that Sandie is, at heart, a regressive ‘crazy ruined woman’ stereotype. She (along with McKenzie) deserves better.
15. So … movie bad? Probably. Ironically, I would have far less to say had its first act not been so promising, and its craftsmanship not been so superb. This is the equivalent of asking a Michelin-starred chef to make a meal with rancid ingredients – the skill can only cover up so much of the rot at its core. I don’t like doing this, but it seemed to me like Last Night in Soho could have been so easily fixed with a more nuanced screenplay. Keep the first act and have Ellie get more obsessed with Sandie’s life and image to the detriment of her real life in the present. Have it be revealed that circumstances (rather than a cartoonishly evil pimp-boyfriend) steered Sandie into sex work, with her eventual realisation that her dreams would never come into fruition. Then, have Sandie be aware of Ellie’s intrusions, and make the movie be about her attempt to seize Ellie’s body and life in order to try to live out her dreams once again. End with Ellie reclaiming control, and using that newfound confidence to reach out to the people around her and realise that hey, romanticising the past wasn’t so great after all. Instead, what we have is a strong first act about a girl dealing poorly with a difficult situation followed by an interminable hour and a half of ‘PROSTITUTION BAD MMKAY?’ It’s frustrating and disappointing, and even with all its many strong elements, Last Night in Soho cannot be seen as anything else as Edgar Wright’s first failure in a glittering career. Here’s hoping it’s his last.
Final Verdict: Not recommended.
Ok this bit is somewhat outside the review, but I just wanted to say that as a fan of Wright’s, Soho seems to be part of an unfortunate downward trajectory. I found Baby Driver to be only ok, and it has really made me wonder if Wright is going to be like Ridley Scott, in that he’s only ever as good as his writer (or co-writer, as Wright has co-written all his screenplays). Perhaps the real genius of the Cornetto Trilogy all this time was Simon Pegg.
Also, for narrative media that deals with sex work in a more nuanced fashion, may I suggest you check out @zola (2021), Hustlers (2019), The Florida Project (2017), and the TV show The Deuce (2017-2019).
- The Sparks documentary just does not interest me at all
- Ok fine, I promised the bad stuff would come later, but you get a taster here.
- And Wright has clearly cribbed from the 70s version and its giallo counterparts
- I give the film the benefit of the doubt and believe that it is unintentional.
- Yes, yes, the lady doth protest too much.