This article involves spoilers for Last Night In Soho.
1960s London. A snapshot of free love, drugs, music, and outgoing and game-changing 60s fashion. With the sounds of The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones reverberating through newly-pierced ears, the time quite rightly summons imagery of bobbies, red phone boxes, black cabs, and bright Union Jacks.
For Eloise Turner (Thomasin McKenzie), London is a place of fairytales. The fashion designer wannabe is introduced to us through a musical opener, as she prances around her bedroom adorned with Audrey Hepburn film posters and clichéd Piccadilly garb. Having clearly never really experienced London outside its tourist traps, Ellie’s world is a fictionalized one, amounting to a snow globe concealing Big Ben over The Clash’s London Calling.
Within this first scene of Last Night in SohoEloise is established as a borderline schizophrenic, with visions of her deceased mother hanging over her shoulder. Successfully getting a place in the college of her dreams, Ellie moves in to an apartment headed by the elderly Ms Collins (Diana Rigg), and each night dreams of “Sandie,” a glamorous and driven 60s blonde with the singular goal of becoming a star (The Queen’s Gambit‘s Anya Taylor-Joy).
Shauna The Dead
Edgar Wright setting his story in the nation’s capital alongside the Swinging 60s plays in to Ellie’s journey as a female protagonist tenfold. Its 60s setting, outgoing London fashion, and throwback to free love and advent of “the pill,” coupled with an increased use of condoms (and more mainstream safe sex) made women start to finally feel like they weren’t merely an extension of their male opposites. World War II had been over for more than a decade, and the stuffiness of the 1950s had dissipated for the out-there coloring of a new age.
Last Night in Soho presents a neat transition from a director and writer who has often focused on male-centric stories of friendship, leaving the female additions sidelined to merely “the girlfriend” role. Liz (Kate Ashfield) or Shaun of the Dead and Sam (Rosamund Pike) of The World’s End both fill in these roles. Elsewhere, Scott Pilgrim‘s approach to women (and the goal of besting and “achieving them”) could even be seen as treating the opposite sex as a mere deck of cards to be shuffled and forgotten until the next game (although Ramona Flowers is also a wildly problematic character, to be discussed at another time). Last Night in Soho is the first feature in Wright’s career co-written by a woman (Krysty Wilson-Cairns).
No Boys Allowed!
Women of three separate generations hold the power throughout Last Night in Soho. Ellie has been brought up by her grandmother, and is later taught by a female teacher at her university. Ellie rents a room from Ms. Collins, and is managed by another older woman at her dingy bar job. On top of that, she is immediately sniped at by her peers, a collective of mean girls.
Flip the chromosomes and the men in this movie, down to their most minor appearances, are reduced to unapproachable male police officers and outdated cabbies (both a very real threat of danger to women, still), alongside everyday scumbags and users. Said men only go on to be subsequently hurt, outright murdered even, in Wright’s fictionalized vision of Soho.
Matt Smith‘s Jack (a shifty lounge manager and pimp) lures Sandie with promises of stages and shows dedicated entirely to her, only then to position her in ogling burlesque gigs. Pushed too far, the thuggish and controlling Jack is stabbed to death by his now formerly abused prostitute. Finally getting revenge on her captor, Sandie impales him “100 times” in a bloodbath against white bedsheets. With the many other men who have used her next in line for the cut, by this point the put-upon young girl has emerged from her suffocating cocoon an empowered butterfly.
Elsewhere, the men who aren’t directly murdered by Sandie are indirectly injured. We are made to believe that Terence Stamp’s character is the current day iteration of 60s Jack (as if he were being wrongly outed for a crime) before he is run down by a black cab. Even perennial good guy, John, is threatened with death. When Ellie suffers from a flashback to an intrusive past life, and is walked in on by the landlady believing that John is trying to rape her, Ms. Collins assures the girl that she would have killed him – later stabbing the young man, all the same. Intentional or not, John himself (Michael Ajao) is underwritten and acts as a simp (listic) anti-Bechdel test, with his every scene getting to know Ellie, checking in on Ellie, trying to date Ellie, etc …
Themes, Throwbacks, and Current Day Iterations
It’s intriguing to think that if this movie were to have been made in the 1960s, Ellie’s own mental health issues and the film’s horror elements could quite easily have seen her turned into the villain, dubbed as some mere “crazy” or “nut,” instead of an unwell young woman going through a chaotic episode. Last Night in Soho‘s themes could quite naturally fit in to a Hammer Horror offering, and its finale (as Eloise attempts to escape the stab-happy Ms. Collins on the stairwell) feels reminiscent of Norman Bates, dressed as his mother in Psycho. By the end of that movie (directed by Londoner, Alfred Hitchcock), Bates sits isolated, rambling about his own madness. You can not help but think that if Last Night in Soho was made in the same decade, that Eloise would be left with a similar fate.
By the time that Sandie / Ms. Collins has been outed for her crimes, a stray cigarette sets fire to a box of vinyl, headed by Dusty Springfield at its front. As an iconic female superstar and lesser-known queer icon, it feels like Dusty and Sandie’s anger at the industry is mutual. Sandie refuses to go to prison and secludes herself to the house fire, mirroring Springfield’s own silencing by the media at the time, and frustrations at not being able to be her true self.
Sandie’s fictional story only echoes the very real trappings of a male-dominated music industry that does not feel like it has evolved since Springfield (a woman prone to long depressive episodes, and alcoholism, unable to properly come out as a lesbian), with more recent examples like Ke $ ha and her own manager, Welsh singer Duffy’s own dreadful story with a kidnapper, and Amy Winehouse’s substance use and premature death at 27, to cite but a few from a depressingly long list.
From a cinematic perspective, Last Night in Soho itself takes major inspiration from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion – a movie and an (aptly repulsive) director which could be argued influenced this film from both on-screen and off of it.
Last Night in Soho is a refreshingly unique and original movie, with British funding from the likes of Film 4, and a British director making movies on home turf. It takes in major influences of the time as a love letter to a bygone era of glitz and glamor, and supplements its tale with a seedy underbelly buoyed by a very current #MeToo movement.
Most importantly, it tells a female story, centered on a driven and talented woman only held back by ghosts of the past, and a survivor, jaded and angry at what the world and this city did to her. The two women mirror one another, deconstructing the nature of fantasy in the process; at first, Ellie wants to be the Sandie of her dreams, and by the end, Sandie wishes she could have Ellie’s innocence and hopes.
Last Night in Soho performed poorly at the box office on release (it was up against Duneand so was only destined to fail), clawing back just over half of its budget, but that will only lean in to its rough-edged cult appeal, and in years time will be recognized as the wildly important piece of feminist art it really is.
Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright wanted to make a sequel to Shaun of the Dead called From Dusk Till Shaun.
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