Part of what I am about to say is motivated by my love of Last Night in Soho’s director Edgar Wright, my favorite auteur. All of his movies, from his early comedies to this most recent example, are brilliant. Only he can get me excited to see a horror film. I typically leave those to Cameron’s more practiced hand. Yet, when doing a little preliminary research for Wright’s latest flick, I found some disturbing news. For whatever reason, our global audience decided to spend their money on sleeping through Dune rather than watch a scary movie on Halloween weekend like Last Night in Soho. The latter is better than the former. For starters, Last Night in Soho does not make you sight through interminable political dialogs, pointless snippets of characters that are barely in the film (despite the trailers), and drawn-out shots of what everyone will maniacally tell you are beautiful. I mean, there are sand dunes in Star Wars, yet people do not seem to flip out as to its beauty. Hence, hopefully by the end of this review of Last Night in Soho, you will be inspired to correct this box office mistake and give Edgar Wright his due. After all, it has got to be better than whatever nonsense is in Halloween Kills.
Last Night in Soho’s main character, Eloise “Ellie” Turner (Thomasin McKenzie), is special. This is not meant in a generic or clinical sort of way, at least as we might use the term. Instead, she sees ghosts. She lives in the countryside of England with her grandmother Margaret (Rita Tushingham), or Peggy more familiarly, safely away from anywhere that she might be unduly influenced by spirits. We know she has this ability because at times she can see her dead mother (Aimee Cassettari), usually only in the mirror. Still, Ellie has dreams beyond her Cornwall cottage. She has an affinity for the 1960s, helped along by Peggy’s record collection, and particularly for the fashion of the decade. Thus, it is with much excitement on her part, and a little consternation from Peggy, that she learns of her acceptance into the London College of Fashion. Her vision of a glamorous college life of designing clothes are put into some doubt when she gets to her dorm. Many of her classmates bully her for her country manners, and not long after she moves out and finds a flat on her own. Her enthusiasm returns, though it is given a turn when she goes to sleep the first night. Soon after drifting off, she seemingly reawakens in the 1960s. She enters the Café de Paris, and it is there that she gets her first look in the mirror. Staring back at her is not her own visage, but rather that of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). Through Ellie, we see Sandie confidently inform the nightclub owner that she intends to be its next singer, and fends off a few rude passes from drunken patrons. The person who takes the most notice of her is Jack (Matt Smith). He defends her honor and promises to look after her. This is basically the end of the first dream, but it provides inspiration for her school work, even her own style. She also notices a hickey on her neck, which is the result of love making between Sandie and Jack. It all makes her eager to go to bed the next night, despite kindly interest from her classmate John (Michael Ajao). None of her sleeping fantasies from this point on are as cheery as the first. We see Sandie go from aspiring singer, to chorus girl, and finally to prostitute. This downward spiral is furthered by Jack, who becomes her pimp. Ellie feels for the confident woman she had come to admire. Ellie’s real life does not seem to be going much better. In it, she meets an older man (Terence Stamp) at a local pub that reminds her disturbingly of Jack, and who suggests that her visions are of the past. She also begins to see apparitions everywhere of the men that Jack had forced upon Sandie. This comes to a head at a school Halloween party, which Ellie attends with John, where the ghosts seem to attack her. When she flees, John follows and they end up back at her flat where she is afraid to go to sleep. Unfortunately, while making out with John, she looks up and notices a mirror on her ceiling and Sandie being attacked by Jack in it. She is forced to witness Sandie’s brutal murder. Ellie attempts to go to the police, but they dismiss her as crazy. She feels it is left to her to solve Sandie’s death, doing so by looking through old newspaper clippings in the school library. Once more, however, the dead come after her. Having had enough, she calls Peggy and asks if she can come home, and John agrees to drive her. Their first stop is the flat to collect her things. On the way up, she stops at her landlady, Ms. Collins (Diana Riggs), in order to tell the older woman that she will be leaving. While sitting with a cup of tea, Ellie notices a bit of mail addressed to Sandie Collins, and it is then that the truth of the matter is revealed. Ms. Collins admits to being Sandie, and that she had actually killed Jack, as well as every other person he had sent to her bedroom. And now she is attempting to poison Ellie. John knocks on the door and is stabbed by Ms. Collins. Ellie attempts to make it up to her apartment where there is a phone she can use to call emergency services, but the ghosts begin to come out again. This time they want Ellie to get revenge for them. Ignoring this instinct and remembering the once glamorous Sandie and her pitiable circumstances, Ellie tries to reason with her. Flames from an errant cigarette are getting ever higher, but Ellie wants Ms. Collins to give herself up to the police. Instead, seeing the wrong she had done, Ms. Collins lets Ellie and John go and dies in the fire. We are treated to one last sequence where a healed Ellie is putting on her own fashion show, seeing her mother and Sandie one last time in mirrors backstage.
When these final scenes of Last Night in Soho happened, I was silently begging them to be real. So often, horror films let you think that everyone is safe in the end, only to show the antagonist still alive, or some other annoyance that undoes all the struggles the protagonists had just endured. This is a large part of why I do not like this genre. Call me square or old fashioned, but I prefer a happy ending. Another angle to why I was initially unsure as to the authenticity of what I was seeing in the end had to do with the nature of Ellie’s visions and how they are shot. If you are familiar with Wright’s work, you know that he does some innovative things with the camera. Take Baby Driver (2017), for example. The whole movie is set to music, and most of the on-screen action is timed to the rhythm of a particular song used for that scene. It is brilliant and charming. In Last Night in Soho, it is mirrors. Though it is not carried through completely with everything Ellie does reflected in Sandie, or vice versa, it is done enough to be clever. It delights the eye. Where it gets to be more than a simple camera trick is in how you see Ellie mimicking Sandie. It plays with who it is that actually steps through the looking glass, if you get the reference. Not to get too out there, but it asks the question as to what is real: what we experience or what is happening on the other side?
As a Catholic, I do not totally appreciate such questions as what is real as posed in Last Night in Soho. I try to filter my experience through my Faith, and I let God determine my reality as much as I am able to discern it. Still, another way to think of the film’s mirror play is by asking yourself what you see when you look at your reflection. We have all done it, right? What we see in the looking glass is not only ourselves in a particular moment. Those moments themselves are the sum of everything we have experienced. What we see, particularly when we are at our most philosophical, is a vision of what we hope to be. Sandie is Ellie’s ideal. At least at first, Sandie has the kind of lifestyle Ellie always wanted, being beautiful, wearing cool clothes, and living in the 1960s. Faith tells us that such perceptions are tricky. Sometimes, we may be blessed with foreknowledge of the future. Such instances are not unheard of in the history of Christianity. They can also be used by the enemy to lure us into decisions that are not good for our souls. It is no easy task to discern between the two. The only sure thing we can do is put our trust in God and leave the rest up to Him. And ultimately, this is what Ellies does. She learns to place her faith in real people, like John, instead of her nighttime fantasies. God is real, too, more so than anything we could ever know. Trust in Him, and you will be taken care of in the end.
Seeing the way Edgar Wright uses a camera is worth the price of admission for Last Night in Soho. Seeing the happy ending seals its quality. If you want to be sad or bored, by all means go out and see the other films. If you would rather be entertained by a slick film with some pretty scary moments, then see this one. It is rated R, so it is not for all audiences. There are a few gory scenes. Thankfully, there is no nudity. Finally, you will care about what happens to Ellie. How often can you say that about a character in a horror film?