Last year was a glum one for movies. The filmgoers who didn’t bother seeing the few tantalizing offerings in person—if not for fear of Covid-19 then to avoid the annoyance of having to wear a mask for two and a half hours—are now watching them at home. One of 2021’s breakout indie hits, Last Night in Soho, which hit theaters in the fall and is now streaming, definitely wasn’t worth the wait. The problem isn’t that the movie is a muddle. The movie is perfectly clear: it is anti-city and anti-male (spoiler alerts below).
Last Night in Soho scored enough positive reviews to make its post-theatrical release worth waiting for. The New York Times called it “sumptuous and surprising;” the Hollywood Reporter explained how its director, Edgar Wright, shot on location (pre-Covid) in one of London’s busiest neighborhoods without anyone noticing. The movie boasted a marquee cast, including the now-deceased Diana Rigg, a Broadway mainstay, and Terence Stamp. Young star Anya Taylor-Joy got a Tatler cover, the new “it” thing for people in the know. (While most fashion magazines have dissolved into earnest middle school essays about sexism and racism, Tatler has courageously maintained an attitude of unapologetic fun.) Yes, reviewers hinted that the movie is violent, but most called it a “psychological thriller”; mindless slasher movies don’t rate big-time reviews.
The film starts out well enough: talented young designer Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) takes the train from her rural hometown to big-city London to become a full-time fashion student at the film’s fictional stand-in for the prestigious Central Saint Martins college in London. Eloise can’t get along with her roommate, who wants to drink, smoke, and hold all-night parties, while she just wants to study. Eloise thus serendipitously finds a top-floor room to rent from a private landlady, who lays down a rule that the young woman is happy to agree to: no overnight male guests, a throwback to the mid-century days when such rules were the norm at women’s dormitories.
Eloise plays a record on a vintage player the landlady has left in the room—and the sixties music transports her back in time. When she goes outside, she’s in the full-color of half-a-century-ago Soho, and she wanders into a famous nightclub. There, she starts to shadow her newfound doppelganger, aspiring singer Sandie (Taylor-Joy).
Now, the trouble starts. Sandie is an excellent singer and dancer, but the seedy men in charge don’t want her for her talent. They quickly put her to work as a prostitute in what turns out to be the very room Eloise is staying in nearly 60 years later. It becomes obvious that something violent eventually happens to Sandie, in that room—and Eloise must find out what in order to see that justice is served.
So far, so good, sort of—it’s a post-feminist twist on the haunted-house genre. This setup could work. Eloise is a small-town girl, but she’s clearly a capable, level-headed young woman, quickly finding a job to pay for her new apartment. She can apply her brains and persistence retroactively to save her predecessor.
It all falls apart, though, because the film has no subtlety. Eloise seems less like a capable young adult learning how the big city works than a ten-year-old girl sent on an errand for the first time, taking literally her grandmother’s instructions to talk to no strange men, no matter what.
This habit starts early. When an older cabdriver makes an innocuous albeit cringeworthy comment—something to the effect of “if the student housing is filled with young women like you, you’ll see me around a lot”—her response isn’t to parry with a witty put-down or just ignore him but to flee the cab and hide in a shopping mart, peering out the door until she sees that he has left. When a fellow student—a young black man named John—offers to help her carry her wheelie bag up the stairs, she rebuffs him.
Eloise has no real agency to help Sandie, because she does not actually make decisions; she follows external rules to the letter. When she does eventually break her landlady’s rule and invite John up, it is very clear that this was a bad idea (and no, John doesn’t rape her, or try to). Breaking the rules—any rules—brings swift and negative consequences. One quickly wishes she were back in her roommate’s dorm room, perhaps waking up with a hangover.
Likewise, Sandie has no agency because she, too, can’t parse subtleties. Sixties London, through both her and Eloise’s eyes, isn’t a place of thrills, fun, and opportunity, mixed in with some danger, where a young woman must learn how the world works, even if the world shouldn’t work that way. Instead, it turns out to be an entirely bad place. There aren’t just a few horrible men, whom a talented young singer learning the hard-knock ways of the world quickly learns to avoid. No, all the men—all the white men, of course—are bad. Sandie has ample time to figure out her real purpose in the nightclub. One scene shows her having one champagne after another with different men, all of whom give her the same line (“that’s a lovely name”) before, presumably, guiding her upstairs.
Yet there is never any notion that Sandie, once she is aware of what she is in for, might simply pick up and leave, bringing her singing voice elsewhere or getting a job in a shop or a restaurant rather than in a club. She has no way of rescuing herself; nor does Eloise have a way of rescuing her. This is a binary world, in which you either stay away from all men (Eloise) or become their permanent, helpless victim and, eventually, a grisly avenger (Sandie).
In its world of black-and-white unsubtlety, Last Night in Soho is also anti-urban. There is no excuse for any kind of violence, of course, sexual or otherwise; successful big cities are safe places for both men and women. But a successful city nevertheless also offers plenty of room for unpredictability and discomfort. People learn through trial and error—with luck, never rising to the level of trauma—how to navigate the urban world.
One measure of the anti-urban bias of the film comes when Eloise announces her intention to flee. She’ll take the train home, she says. John becomes the knight in shining armor because, he reveals, he has a car. “How do you think I get from south London to north London?” he asks. Well, most people would take the train or the bus. But only the private car—not one driven by a taxi driver, who might say something off-color—is a refuge. This generation, of course, is the cohort for whom an Uber has always been at hand (at least until Covid). And we all know the meek Uber driver is supposed to know his place, remaining entirely silent, lest he receive a one-star review under our budding social-credit system for enforcing good behavior.
There’s always the possibility, of course, that director Edgar Wright knows all this and is having a joke: that he is parodying, not acceding to, this rather grim new war of the sexes. If so, then he could have sent that signal more clearly through a bit of humor. One hallmark of most run-of-the-mill horror movies is that they are at least slightly funny. Last Night in Soho is never funny. Ironically, Wright implies that, for our own good, we all belong not in 2019 London or in sixties London but in our popular (but flawed) notions of Victorian London—a place where a woman wouldn’t dream of trying to make it in the big city alone. Last Night in Soho, indeed.
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