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Non-Review Review: Last Night in Soho

Last Night in Soho is a fascinating snapshot of the siren lure of nostalgia, and how it is so often filtered through a presumptive male gaze.

Last Night in Soho follows a young student named Eloise who moves to London for the first time to follow her dream of becoming a fashion designer. After some tensions with her roommate, Eloise moves out of her apartment into a small bedsit, with warnings that past tenants have had some strange experiences in the flat – disappearing in the dead of night, as if fleeing from something that shares the space. Eloise has always been sensitive to otherworldly presences, and it is no surprise when she seems to connect with the memories imprinted in her new bedroom.

Who nose?

Night after night, Eloise is seduced by memories of a young woman named Sandy, who came to London to pursue her own ambitions of becoming a singer. Sandy met a handsome talent agent named Jack, who promises that he can make all of her dreams come true. As Eloise sinks deeper into this nostalgic fantasies of the swinging sixties, she notices that the lines are begin blur – between her waking moments and her sleeping thoughts, between herself and the girl who visits her at night, between dreams and nightmares.

At its core, Last Night in Soho is a meditation on the idea that it is not always so easy to escape the past.

Bad romance.

Nostalgia obviously comes in waves. It’s possible to trace a significant amount of modern nostalgia to the nineties – the Friends reunion, the big deal announcement of Seinfeld on Netflix, the drama of American Crime Story: Impeachment, even the divorce drama of Spencer. At the same time, the past decade has also seen a wave of nostalgia for the sixties; the end of Mad Men, the release of movies like X-Men: First Class, even Jackie or Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, the fiftieth anniversary of media franchises like Doctor Who or Star Trek.

The sixties were a very vital time, particular in British pop culture. When Eloise finds herself thrown back in time, she is instantly surrounded by cultural markers like a gigantic billboard for Thunderball or the neon lighting in Trafalgar Square. The soundtrack pops. The fashion bursts from the frame. When Eloise takes inspiration from her dreams back to the waking world, her teacher and her friends instantly recognise when that inspiration is coming from. Even as her dreams jump forward in time, they remain trapped within “the mid- to late-sixties.”

No time for reflection.

Co-writer and director Edgar Wright clearly understands the allure of the decade. As one might expect, particularly following Baby Driver, the film’s soundtrack is saturated with deep cuts and perennial favourites. Wright even makes a point to cast both Terrence Stamp and Diana Rigg as living ambassadors for the swinging sixties, movie stars whose mere presence provide a tangible link to that lost and magical era. As rendered through practical and digital effects, and as shot by Chung-hoon Chung, the decade feels vibrant and alive.

Last Night in Soho doesn’t necessarily capture London as it was, instead channelling how it is remembered. Like Tarantino, Wright is a director whose work is often filtered through the lens of popular culture as much as actual history. Wright has been candid about the fact that Last Night in Soho is taking its cues from movies like Don’t Look Now or Repulsion, albeit in a more playful and accessible manner than other spiritual successors to that wave of horror, like Ari Aster’s Hereditary.

Feeling blue.

There’s a deliberate unreality to Last Night in Soho. This is a London that never existed outside glamour shoots or cinema screen. It works, because this is very deliberately a movie about how cultural memory is filtered and distorted over time. Notably, Wright’s opening twenty minutes of the film are very deliberately and very pointedly grounded, albeit with Wright’s confidence and assuredness, only for the film to become a lot more overtly stylised once Eloise slips into her literal dream world. This is not a world that was, but a world conjured into being through nostalgia.

Of course, Wright is also cognisant that this nostalgia can be dangerous. Eloise is initially enchanted by her shared memories of Sandy’s adventures. Sandy brushes shoulders with stars like Cilla Black. Jack is charming and charismatic. The city is bustling. Eloise begins to feel the siren call of nostalgia even in her waking hours. She dyes her hair blonde, to look more like Sandy. She buys retro clothing so that she can look more like Sandy. The line between Eloise and Sandy begins to blur, to the point that a mysterious old man seems to recognise Sandy in Eloise.

Elle and back.

Earlier this year, the giallo horror films of the sixties and seventies became a key point of reference for James Wan’s Malignant. While it’s easy to understand that comparison, particularly given the film’s pulpy premise and use of vivid colours, Malignant felt much more of a piece with the schlocky American exploitation horrors of the eighties, which took their cues from those international horror films. While it’s perhaps a stretch to make that connection to Last Night in Soho, the film does feel more European in its sensibility; it’s more psychological, more introspective, more abstract. It’s also lit in those strong neon hues.

That said, appropriately enough for such a postmodern psychological thriller set (at least partially) against the backdrop of sixties London, there are shades of Hitchcock to this tale of manufactured blondes. Of course, Vertigo landed two years before the sixties began and Psycho helped usher in a new era, but Hitchcock’s films exert an inescapable gravity over Last Night in Soho. This is a film about the act of looking and watching. When she travels back in time, Eloise often watches events from the other side of a mirror. It’s also about how image is constructed, how Sandy and Eloise are designed as much as actualised.

“I’m talkin’ to the girl in the mirror…”

This is the real horror at the heart of Last Night in Soho, and the film’s anxiety about the siren call of nostalgia. Last Night in Soho is cognisant of the fact that so much of the nostalgia for the sixties is filtered through the lens of the male gaze, the unreconstructed fantasy of a past that existed just on the cusp of modernity: a moment when feminism was still trying to gain a foothold, but a point where the sexual revolution made it easier than ever for men to commodify and sell sexuality while couching it in the language of empowerment.

It’s a familiar debate over nostalgia, particular as it concerns prestige projects like Mad Men. While the show itself might offer an unvarnished glimpse of an era that has faded into history, how much of the show’s appeal to a certain audience speaks to a yearning to return – like Don Draper using the Kodak Carousel – to an era when things appeared to be simpler and easier. After all, that particular time and place was simpler and easier for a particular class of person, so it’s interesting to see that nostalgia packaged and sold so comfortably and uncritically.

Facing up to the past…

Last Night in Soho returns repeatedly to the question of the male gaze. The audience sees Sandy through Eloise’s eyes, but those eyes are largely passive; on the other side of a mirror, Eloise cannot affect the outcome of what she watches. Instead, in her bid to become a music star, Sandy finds herself transformed and manipulated by Jack. She falls into cycles of abuse and degradation, turned into a commodity as she constructs an image to appeal to “the kind of men you have to perform for.” Decades later, Eloise finds herself not only using that image in her designs, but also recreating it in her own fashion.

Last Night in Soho understands that cultural memory is an imperfect thing. It cheats. The film is built around a series of clever set-ups that consciously play with the audience’s expectation, their own understanding of what they think this story is supposed to look like. It’s a very canny piece of storytelling from Wright, to the point that the audience’s gaze becomes part of the horror of Last Night in Soho. Just as Jack sculpts and shapes Sandy into an illusory object, Last Night in Soho is designed to play off the narratives that audiences themselves will construst around Sandy.

In the neck of time.

Ultimately, however, “the smells rise up.” The past must be confronted. It cannot be ignored or brushed aside. Like much of Wright’s filmography, it makes sense to examine Last Night in Soho as a genre exercise. However, there is something decidedly more barbed bubbling beneath the surface. Although obviously written before the global pandemic, and prefiguring at least some of the debates on the topic, Last Night in Soho feels engaged with ongoing discussion about how best to deal with the complicated past – the history that is at once romanticised as an institution, but which is steeped in violence and horror.

That said, Last Night in Soho works just as well as a traditional ghost story. What are ghosts but the voice of conscience, memories that haunted familiar spaces, like trauma recorded in concrete? Ghost stories are often about the unburied past, and often rooted in a specific place – there’s a reason that spectres tend to haunt grand house or graveyards. In Last Night in Soho, it is the entire city of London that is haunted. In the film’s most striking sequences, past and present seem to collapse into the city, with Eloise’s geographic journey taking her through the city’s history.

You don’t know Jack…

In some ways, Last Night in Soho feels like a spiritual companion piece to the long-running comic Hellblazer. Although published by DC, the book was largely written by British writers, often grappling with particular British anxieties about the nation’s relationship with a diminished present and a romanticised past. Last Night in Soho feels of a piece with the sorts of stories that the comic would tell during the nineties, with the ascent of New Labour and the increased commercialisation of London. As big companies threatened to scrub away the city’s identity and history, that meant grappling with what that identity and history was.

Last Night in Soho benefits from a strong central cast. Thomasin McKenzie channels the same innocence that defined her work on films like Old and JoJo Rabbit, albeit to much greater effect. Anya Taylor-Joy, who was cast after Wright saw her in The VVitch, is suitable ethereal. Matt Smith taps into the same balance of charm and darkness that has defined so much of his work since Doctor Who. Newcomer Michael Ajao is suitably charming as Eloise’s college friend.

Similarly, the movie also capitalises on strong costume and production design from Odile Dicks-Mireaux and Marcus Rowland, respectively. For all that the film is built around nostalgia as horror, it does capture the glamour and allure of the era in question. There’s a giddiness to Wright’s recreation of sixties London. At points, this enthusiasm threatens to undercut the movie – there’s a sense that Wright himself has been seduced by the cultural memory of the sixties. It’s a very delicate balance, but Last Night in Soho remains just enough on the right side of discomfort. There’s that compelling push-and-pull in effect.

Last Night in Soho suggests that the past hangs in the air, denser than the London fog.

One Response

  1. I couldn’t connect with the film. It is very pretty to look at, but I have a hard time connecting with Eloise or believing the other guy, the romantic interest. I understand how movies work, so I´m not complaining when:

    SPOILERS
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    .
    .
    .

    Eloise sees a vision of recently murdered Sandie in her class and runs away… or when, during the climax, the ghosts are attacking Eloise but, really, they only want to help.
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .

    END OF SPOILERS.

    But girl-wonder Eloise was a hard pill for me to swallow. Everybody is in awe of her, of her kindness, of her super human ability for design, but I didn´t see any of that on the screen. She struck me as a very spoiled, very self-centered and selfish person…

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