Last Night in Soho Review

Last Night in Soho Review

Last Night in Soho (2021) feels very much a piece with the last films by two of the other biggest working auteurs: Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch (2021) & Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019), they’re all reflections, or maybe just presentations of nostalgia from a culture never more drowning in it. Few can still command such scale and creative control but both Anderson and Tarantino recede, both ultimately unquestioning of nostalgia, of the past; the former wistful of it’s passing and the latter more radically fantasising a way it didn’t have to. But it’s hard to argue these aren’t films of stylists working at the highest level, all their ticks have been so sharpened and clarified.

but Edgar Wright’s films have never looked so parochial. the opening scenes of last night in soho set in cornwall, which eloise (Thomasin Mckenzie) is leaving to study fashion in great-big-london, look shockingly like an itv drama - sliding so quickly into shot reverse shot with that thoughtless soft focus stripping it of all place and specificity it needs for contrast.

London is no better though, Wright has no sense for the city he supposedly lives in, and certainly no sense of the specific milieu of fashion school. All the other students are shocked by Eloise’s love of the sixties, which is just bizarre, we’re so many years into that soft cancellation of the future, where most culture is totally backwards looking - but Wright isn’t interested, or is so consumed by it himself he doesn’t realise. Eloise’s nostalgia is just a quirk of his ingenue.

The modern world only exists in relation to her, whenever she has a moment of almost any emotional intensity all eyes in class are on her. Eloise’s bitchy roommate is hardly coloured in more than that, in a film supposedly about female interiority it’s so happy to turn them into cyphers, empty symbols, or even just movie tropes. The way wright breezes through those signifiers in his genre-comedies are played here with a total seriousness, a literalness of someone who seems only to know the world through the movies.

His positive vision of femininity is at best thinly drawn, much like Tarantino did with Sharon Tate, it’s about purity, a naivety. When she moves out of university accommodation and into a mysterious and somehow affordable room in central Soho, the landlady (Diana Rigg) tells Eloise she can’t bring back any men, to which she uninflected responds “that won’t be a problem.”

The only sexuality in Wright’s world is the terrible infliction of male desire pushed onto eloise and Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) , the beautiful singer turned prostitute from the 60’s that eloise seems to both follow and be as she takes these strange trips back in time - until the film gives up on that structure about half way through and becomes a monotonous drone, endless scenes of Eloise running away from Doctor Who monsters.

Wright has talked about the films he’s trying to subvert as having a “punitive approach to their female characters”, punishing them for wanting to achieve something, and often for having a sexuality. But in practice the second half of the movie is mostly scenes of Eloise hallucinating, running, suffering, he’s recreating all of it. Her most visceral and upsetting moment comes from when she’s about to sleep with her love interest John (Michael Ajao), who in the totally under-concieved ending she’s not allowed to kiss.

Apparently Eloise finds some synthesis between her 60’s nostalgia and living-in-the-now by putting sandie’s dress on androgynous bodies. I’m not sure in what way she’s supposed to have actually integrated these things beyond the symbolic, beyond the image of a winking sandie eloise still sees in the mirror - did forgiving sandie for her sins, understanding she came from a historical context, gives her perspective on her own context? No. No real questions are asked of the present day, some passing sexist cab drivers, students and bar-flys are swiftly forgotten between the trips from one scary scene to the next.

It would have been more interesting, or simply just coherent, for John, at first a symbol of pure masculine virtue reveals himself to be just like the men she sees through sandie’s eyes, let her agent turned pimp Jack (Matt Smith) who seduces her only to use her, to pull her down into - to wright the darkest chasm - sex work.

But John can’t do anymore than show eloise the upmost support, even after seeing her almost stab her roommate in the skull with a pair of scissors, because he’s just a good guy (it would be too easy to read this film from a male feminist angle). you could uncharitably read this as a refusal to give a black man interiority, but this is as true with any other character, with eloise whose inner life we are supposedly exploring. it’s a total lack of understanding of people and sexuality, as Matt Lynch on Letterboxd put it “if you want to remake repulsion […] you have to have had sex before, at least once.”

There’s an image Wright borrows from that film, Eloise is pinned to her bed by hands reaching through it, and all of them touch her in as tasteful way as possible with something so loaded. Polanski’s films, and Giallos, which wright has claimed to have been inspired by, are works of deeply conflicted interest, at best incredible portraits of female suffering, but almost always perversely enjoying it.

Wright’s biggest sin is wanting to be nice, instead of embracing, taking seriously, the nastiness of the subject matter, he’s much more comfortable to push it away into abstraction; into silly monsters and references to other films.

As Anderson suggests by labelling the, yes heroic and yes tragic, faux May-1968 protestors as “grumpy” and Tarantino again says more outright with the brutal physical punishment of hippies - the symbol of the coming social change - cleverly allowing them to only be represented by the stupid and evil Manson kids, goodness is passive, it’s in keeping things the natural way. To Wright it’s innate, goodness is being a nice person first and foremost.

Good people come into the world naked and pure and evil people soil them, punish them for their virtue. Wright can only half-heartedly suggest a solution that’s little more than a doormat quote: to find balance, to live in the moment, because the film’s ideology is dead-end. But without the courage of bleakness, he wants to have happy ending even if he can’t find a good way to get to one because wouldn’t that be nice.

Originally Posted on Substack on November 28th 2021