Last Night in Soho (Review)

Glamorous facades hide horrible truths. This is the central, and repeated thrust, of Last Night in Soho: a film about a first year fashion student (Eloise, played by Thomasin McKenzie) who comes to London with a head full of ’60s aesthetics (and a pull to the past), before getting too much of what she wished for. Not only is the present day world of London a harsher and more abrasive existence than she expected, in her dreams she is suddenly transported back to the ’60s itself. This begins as sheer escapism for Eloise, but idyllic visions (sheer nostalgia) soon turn out to be hellish nightmares that invade her present. The past of her dreams is the real past: real people who went through real struggles. Only now, that very real and very traumatic past exists even when she is awake, as she starts to lose her grip on reality.

The surface level narrative slips by at quite a pace, as it quickly becomes a mystery story. To begin with, this is very much a character study of Eloise, and how she starts to come apart. But her visions overtake the narrative, in them she sees herself as a girl named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), who dreamed of stardom and finds herself pushed into sex work by horrible men. This leads to a traumatic event and then becomes a mystery to be solved. What happened happened, but maybe some justice can be served in the present. The initial problem, here, is that what the film becomes is nowhere near as compelling as what it could have been. This mystery is conventional, predictable even, and would be better served in a different film that is about these things. Ultimately, the mystery, and sub-storyline in general, bulldozes through any themes, emotional resonance, character or intentionality. The film is left, at best, hollow and, at worst, deeply uncomfortable in all the wrong ways.

Yes, it is a story about how glamorous facades hide horrible truths, but it really stings that this also serves as a core criticism of the film. On the surface, this is a beautiful film, with stunning cinematography by Chung Chung-hoon (Park Chan-wook’s regular cinematographer), with terrific costuming, production design and really impressive effects work. There’s a recurring visual motif involving mirrors that is beautifully done, and is supported by the two stellar lead performances. Here, Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie show off their dancing skills, in independently brilliant moments, and Taylor-Joy even gets to sings. The film is also built around music, like so much of Edgar Wright’s work, doing this well and giving it a real style. Though, I would argue that Wright’s style doesn’t ever quite match the content. He is a snappy filmmaker, born from the Raimi school (of the Evil Dead era). This precise and kinetic style is not in concert with the woozy, Giallo logic of the film. Where your Argentos have these virtuosic sequences and an operatic grandiosity, Wright plays it tight. This only becomes an issue when the film’s narrative, and genre fluidity, demand it to be looser. The interplay between fact and fiction does not neatly fit the approach; the end result is a flimsy feeling reality that we move too quickly through. It never feels like a concrete world and it relies entirely on clichés for its plotting.

But, the real issue is the toxicity at the film’s core. To begin with, the film is very good at evoking certain things. It powerfully dredges up female trauma, presenting a world hostile to femininity in which merely existing is opening oneself up to constant threat. This is, initially, well handled, in the sequences in the past, also. Here, we have a unified argument making it clear that patriarchal domination is horrendous and that it persists. The film also does a good job (again, initially) of showing a character suffering with their mental wellbeing. A decaying mental state is specifically contextualised with the language of mental ill health, and we see how people in need of support are left completely isolated. But, the horrible truths at the core of the film start awaken here. Last Night in Soho does nothing with any of this emotive material, ditching a focus on character and never actually creating any convincing humans. The final result is that it invokes a lot of realistic, traumatic material but does so for no reason. Nothing is cathartic, there is no clear message or purpose, it is not an empathetic film. Realistic trauma is thrown at the audience and then the film becomes a twisty mystery with silly rug pull moments. What seemed to be sensitive plotting and an exploration of pertinent themes merely ends up as ammunition for a few fake outs at the end, or surprise narrative points. It feels deeply exploitative.

And here is the worst part. This film purports to be about how women are restricted and oppressed, how their agency is taken from them; yet, the film is so guilty of this. In showing this it also creates empty characters with none of these qualities to begin with. Our central women exist merely to have distress heaped upon them. There is no logic to how they operate, no believability. There is no room for character or humanity here; the film doesn’t establish anything. Real concerns about mental health and support are ignored, instead the topic is used as a launchpad for horror imagery (which is really nasty). Yes, Eloise is a victim of the society around her that limits her, but she’s also a victim of the script. She is not allowed to be a character and the film does nothing with her. Everybody, ultimately, is just a pawn for what the narrative wants to be at that moment, showing that the logic and structure of the film is the very thing the narrative claims to critique.

So, yes, it is a pretty film. It is a stylish film too. The direction, if not the snuggest fit, is all so very proficient. On a technical level, this is stellar filmmaking. But to what end? This is a nothing of a film. It is a clichéd and predictable horror narrative that falls apart under the weight of its own emptiness, and stupidity. It is a masterclass in how to make a film that is completely surface; hell, it even pushes things to the surface that it shouldn’t. Characters are motivated in inexplicable ways, and are even drawn to each other romantically because that’s a film trope. And, at the centre of it all, is a character that needs help and support, and the film just pulls further and further away from this. Our ultimate arc shows that actual intervention and actual care were never necessary, all that mattered was the mystery being solved (and some vague platitudes). The reality of trauma is pushed away, as is the invocation of misogyny, as is character and as is the topic of mental health. These were all disposable ladders to help us reach a far-fetched point, the film never cared and has long since disposed of any substance.

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