Director: Edgar Wright (UK). Year of Release: 2021
Eloise, who understandably prefers to be known as Ellie, lives in Cornwall with her grandma. She didn’t know her father, and her mother suicided when she was 7 after a history of mental illness. As a result, Ellie has regular visions of her mother. She lies to her gran and says she hasn’t had one in ages. Nonetheless, when Ellie gets offered a place in the London College of Fashion, gran worries that it might all be a bit too much for her.
The College is populated with posh girls with names like Jocasta who are universally horrible. I think we are supposed to infer that Ellie is poor – her gran was a seamstress and her parents are long gone. Yet they live in a large house in the countryside, and when she arrives in the Big Smoke, she thinks nothing of getting a taxi to her student accommodation. That grant’s going to go pretty quickly at that rate.
Ellie quickly realises that she can’t live with all the Jocastas so finds a big room at the top of a house in gentrified Soho. The landlady says that she charges more than most landlords, but Eliie reckons that she can pay for it by getting a job at the local Irish bar. The bar is run by Mrs Doyle who doesn’t seem to mind when Ellie says she’d never done bar work before. Fortunately, Down South they all drink lager and spirits so we never see Ellie struggling to pull a pint of bitter.
At night, Ellie starts to have – what exactly? Dreams? Visions? Whatever it is that is happening (and I don’t think the film is really sure), Ellie is transported into the 1960s with Sandie, who appears to be a more confident version of herself. I think we are supposed to presume that this is all happening in Ellie’s troubled head, but on the day after she watches Sandie try to become a singer, and fumble with a spiv who wants to be her manager, a love bite appears on Ellie’s neck.
Sometimes Ellie is Sandie – when she looks into a mirror, she sees Sandie’s face looking back at her. This encourages her to dye her her blonde and design dresses based on what she sees Sandie wearing. But at other times, Ellie is watching Sandie from a distance. She sits in the room while she watches Sandie’s increasingly problematic and violent relationship with the spiv Jack.
Back in the “real” world, Ellie is convinced that Sandie really existed and her apparitions are telling her about a real life murder that happened in the 1960s. This leads her to search old newspaper reports on microfiche in the local library, because Google hasn’t reached That London yet. In the library, she has a turn which leads to her attacking someone with scissors. Again, it’s not clear whether this is her reaction to past events or the result of a disorder in her head.
Does this lack of clarity matter? Well, not if you’re prepared to make a leap of faith and accept that what we see on screen is in some way real. The trouble is, that the story is so unconvincing that we (or at least, I) don’t get drawn in, and spend way too much time thinking “well, that wouldn’t happen”. Jack in neither menacing nor charming enough – you don’t see why Sandie would go along with him, but the plot hinges on her powerlessness in his presence.
This brings us to a more general problem with the film. It would like to be woke, and to give it credit, it is far less laddish than most of Edgar Wright’s previous films. It takes violence against women very seriously, and pretty much all the men (with one “nice” exception) are pretty bloody sleazy. Yet all the women are a bit pathetic and without agency – with one exception which we won’t mention cos of spoilers – and this really feels like its been tacked on at the end.
I saw this film as a “Sneak Preview” at the weekly Saturday night horror film in Berlin’s Rollberg cinema. This event has a very broad definition of “horror”, which means that it’s not so strange that Last Night in Soho is appearing here. the problem is, though, that where the film does try to be scary, its not really at all frightening. As we cannot truly believe in anything that we see in front of us, it’s lacking the jeopardy that would cause us to feel really scared.
And yet for all this, and for all I wanted to hate Last Night in Soho (on the day I saw it, I read a great kicking it was given by the great Eileen Jones), bits of the film are undeniably impressive. It looks great, and the sixties soundtrack is superb. And the great old actors Terence Stamp, Diana Rigg and Rita Tushingham will always be impressive, however nonsensical the script is that they have to read from.
This means that we are left with an unholy mess, which thinks it is much better and more perceptive than it actually is, but is ultimately pretty insubstantial. Maybe its apt that the main character is studying fashion – there’s enough interesting style here, but very little substance. This is a big mess of a movie, which is not without its merits.