7/10 Last Night in Soho is a delightful, great-looking, easy-watching horror movie about sex slavery and the inability to escape the hidden sins of the past. It’s a strange watch.
Soho, London- Bright-eyed freshman Ellie Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) relocates from a small town near Redruth, Cornwall to study at the London College of Fashion. Turner, who is inspired by the youth culture and aesthetics of 1960s London, dreams vividly that she is Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a socialite who relocates to London in the ‘60s to become a star in the city’s nightclubs. Turner eagerly blurs Sandie’s identity into her own, living a double life in which she sleeps as much as she can and uses Sandie to build her personal style, but their dreams become nightmares as Sandie’s manager/boyfriend, Jack (Matt Smith), enslaves her to sell her for sex. As she experiences his crimes first-hand, Turner becomes aware that a much older Jack (Terrence Stamp) still haunts the Soho bars.
Last Night in Soho feels like it was made specifically for me, cultivating the romance of the history of the spaces Turner inhabits and then confronting that romance with the horror. This is writer/director/producer Edgar Wright’s #metoo movie, and it’s a bit of a departure for him. Baby Driver, his most recent movie,was his first that wasn’t primarily a comedy, and Last Night in Soho is now his first movie that doesn’t have any comedic elements. That’s good timing, it would have been strange for this nightmare about sex slavery to be “ha ha” funny.
Lacking jokes, Last Night in Soho still feels great to watch because of its aesthetics. This is every frame Turner’s dream of resurgent ‘60s fashion and music, using everything to fold the decade into contemporary London, from the basics a ‘60s heavy soundtrack and combining the fashion of the past into the present to a plot that frequently overlays settings and eventually sees the ghosts of that era crashing onto the present-day screen. The joyfully styled and scored world is a delight, and it’s only enhanced by Chung Chung-hoon’s vigorous camerawork and striking compositions – this type of energetic cinematography and a thoroughly used score are Wright’s over-arching signatures.
The film also leans hard into the ‘60s setting with its harsh lighting and splatter-gore inspired by pulpy Italian giallo films from that time period.
It’s perfectly cast. Smith and Stamp create characters who shift from charming to predatory in an instant without seeming to change moods, seamlessly capturing the uncertainty of the interested stranger, and McKenzie puts everything she has into her extended final girl act. Taylor-Joy brings her status as the most glamorous person in showbusiness in fact and in reputation to bear – both are crucial to her performance.
Last Night in Soho expertly captures the shock and disillusionment of the Weinstein scandal, which directly tied Hollywood as an institution to a legacy of sexual violence in a way that it hasn’t been before. It was implicit and expected and joked about, the old trope of the casting couch, but when the Weinstein story broke, this went from theory to reality, a reality with gruesome details and lasting consequences on real survivors.
Last Night in Soho mirrors this dynamic step-by-step. Turner, and Sandie in her own timeline, arrives in London aware that bad things happen there, but unaware that they’ll happen to her. Her romance is eclipsed by horror in real time, and it’s fully eclipsed – once Sandie’s situation becomes violent, Turner doesn’t get a moment’s peace. The violence’s rapid acceleration is a key contributor to the tension.
Last Night in Soho loses sight of itself with its twist ending. This is a movie about stories that cruelly refuse to twist, that instead play out according to your worst expectations as dictated by cold statistics. Instead, the metaphors get all mixed up, and it goes from being a story about the short step from industries to entertain creepy old men to ones to satisfy them to one about how women taking that power back would be equally horrible, somehow.
Last Night in Soho’s ending is confusing and unfortunate, but not disqualifying. It’s inappropriate to the story and it would take a lot of work to reframe the rest of the movie as having led up to it, and that’s work that’s better left undone. In this case, it’s better to enjoy what’s here.