Last Night in Soho

Last Night in Soho ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

“You know where to find me…”

we’re all haunted in some fashion aren’t we? by dirty secrets that fester in our bones, by the fear and loathing that bubbles and boils yet recoils at ever being said aloud. but it’s more than that; we’re haunted by jealousy, by the insecurity of not being better, of not being Someone. we want to be more than what we are, to find something…something we don’t know. 

a shining thing we cannot grasp, that resides behind the screen, sometime during eternity. 

and so we look to the past, the past that lives in a palace of romance and dreams. it’s a place Ellie (in a breakout performance by Thomasin Mackenzie) sees in her waking life, one mostly benign and supportive in her small countryside world: a chaste and ghostly kiss on the cheek, or the warm smile that flickers in the milliseconds between her reflection and herself. there’s no explicit explanation for her abilities, and frankly there’s not much need for one. it’s a plot device, a contrivance for sure, but it’s one that very much highlights the major themes of the movie: nostalgia and possession. 

it’s clear especially in how much Ellie yearns for the glamour of days gone by, for a world she’s never experienced outside of films and music and books; posters of Audrey Hepburn movies litter the walls, and the rhythm of the swinging 60s echoes from the record player as she dances around her room draped in a newspaper dress of her own design—literally wearing the past on her shoulders. she’s a talented aspiring fashion designer, we learn, off to university in London. she’s excited, giddy as a gadfly to live out her big city dreams, a sentiment that soon sours upon her arrival. a taxi cab drive takes a sharp left turn from pleasant street to uncomfortable avenue as the driver continuously asks her leering question after leering question, an interaction that might seem—likely in the taxi man’s opinion—inconsequential, forgettable even, in the grander scheme of things, but for Ellie it’s a moment of unnerving and squirming into herself, a herald of darker things to come. 

further still she’s uncomfortable in her dorm, mocked and set aside into the background like an unwanted tagalong by the other girls in her class. she’s an outsider, she feels, of her own generation and of her own present, like a ghost born alive. it’s this feeling that pushes her to rent a charming apartment in Soho from kindly old Ms. Collins (the late great Diana Rigg in her final film role). it’s the perfect place for Ellie at last; a living pocket of the 1960s hidden away from the advent of modernity…in more ways than one. 

as she turns in for bed that night, Ellie, blanketed by a delightful array of red and blue light, is whisked straight into that past she craves wearing the skin of the mysterious and alluring Sandie (played to pitch perfection by Anya Taylor-Joy). although it’s more accurate to say that Sandie is wearing her; unlike Ellie, Sandie is effortlessly cool, direct, to the point, endlessly comfortable in her own skin. in many ways, she’s the personification of everything Ellie wants to be, not simply because of her truly immaculate sense of style (hats off to the costume design team for reals) but it’s in the totality of her attitude, the sheer mystique of her; she struts into a room and takes immediate ownership of everything in it, she’s attractive to the men that surround her and can rebuff them with ease. what is most alluring about Sandie to Ellie more so than anything is that she’s the center of attention, the star on the stage, but is never beholden to their gaze…rather, it appears they’re beholden to her.

appearances can be deceiving, however, and without hindsight it’s easy to mistake innocent naivety for confidence. 

Sandie is effervescent and brimming with life but she’s an illusion, an ethereal image of glamour. it’s something that Ellie does not see at first, far too attracted by the glitz and glam and romantic escapades, too entranced and subsumed as she models herself after the mythic dream girl in a-line dresses and groovy boots to notice the cracks simmering beneath the Soho streets. but the dream quickly becomes a nightmarish sinkhole that swallows Ellie up whole, as the horrific underbelly of the 60s rears its ugly head to consume her waking life.

the thing about nostalgia is that, though comforting and often benign, it can easily become toxic. it’s best illustrated as the difference between love and possession, the difference of the admiration of something that happened, something that went and the obsession with an image of something gone, something that might not have existed in the first place. 

to cherish the past is human; we all long for the safety of memories, the beauty and grandeur that permeates in pictures and movie shows. it’s easy, however, to lose ourselves in our dreaming, to get drawn in by the perfume of that rose-scented skeleton until it literally tries to kill you. and it’s easy as well to be distorted, to die and disappear and dissipate into lifelessness and bitter cruelty a thousand times by a thousand names. 

this is especially pertinent in the third act, as the past and present collide in a fiery hallucination. there’s this assumption that this is where the film collapses but, while flawed in execution and most certainly a case of “your mileage may vary”, it’s an opinion I very much disagree with, particularly in the idea of it being misogynistic. the reason it works for me is because of the way the film centers on exploring not just the toxicity of nostalgia but also the cycle of violence that binds the two young women together across the infinite sea of time.

it’s important to highlight that Ellie is not viewing Sandie’s life like a movie, she’s living it, woven into the fabric of her memories. the two are connected by more than a room and the barrage of neon lights, they’re connected by pain, by fear, by a burning want, a need to truly be seen. I started this review expositing on how we’re all haunted by something or other, how we crave to be other than ourselves, to see someone else in the mirror’s eye, and that’s still true in many regards but again, as I stated then, it’s more than that, and over the course of this review it’s become more than that.

we don’t just want to be more, we want to be. we want to be seen, to be loved, to be recognized. and Ellie learns that; she is not terrified by the past she sees, she is horrified by the tragedy that unfolds, the pain and suffering endured. but the distortion doesn’t claim her, like it did Sandie and so many others still. she isn’t destroyed by the past that threatens to eat her alive, rather she is emboldened by it. Ellie grows from her experiences, embodying Sandie and stubbornly changing events that have already happened, chasing after the vestige of a girl she doesn’t know but in a way knows intimately and intricately. even when that suffering girl turns her pain into anger, even as she stalks and strikes, driven bitter by age, wielding a knife made from the broken shards of her dreams, Ellie still sees the girl she was—the Sandie before she was forced to strip every part of herself away, down to her name, for a crowd of shadowy men who were free to deny their sins, to flicker in and out of the seedy underworld they built and left her to rot in—and embraces her, and encourages her to live.

to please. live.

“It’s okay to ask for help.”

in the end though, the past can’t be changed nor can it be saved. the past is dead, it dies with every moment that passes.

and all we can really do is remember. and learn. 

and that’s what Ellie does; she takes the anguish and trauma and weaves it into a brand new design, bridging the gap between the past and present with a needle and thread. she doesn’t make that same mistake of coloring the past with a lie, no matter how glamorous it may seem, and chooses to make that ugly interior, the scorched bones of a skeleton long dead a thousand times over, her brush and canvas. 

pain transformed. a chrysalis for beauty to bloom. 

and though the mythic girl is dead, gone and burnt to ash, she remains, revealed and finally real in the milliseconds between Ellie’s reflection and herself. remembered.

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