Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho was one of the most anticipated films of 2021, centering on an era-spanning psychological thriller with discordant coming-of-age and horror elements. Sporting a final half and an ending that can only be termed as divisive, Last Night in Soho forays into the folds of the past, and the ways in which nostalgia can hold one back from healing in the present. Wright brings this saturated, complex tale to life with the aid of Eloise Turner (Thomasin McKenzie), a sweet, gifted girl who aspires to be a fashion designer, spurring her to move to London to be able to fulfill her dreams. However, Ellie’s journey is one entrenched with a longing for the past, entwined with the fate of the enigmatic Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), along with the repercussions of dreams bleeding into waking reality.
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Once accepted into the London College of Fashion, Ellie, like every teenager brimming with ambition, embraces this sudden change wholeheartedly. While her grandmother is wholly supportive of her, she has misgivings about the effects of the city on a tender soul like that of Ellie, who has not quite healed from the trauma of losing her mother. Carrying this generational trauma within her bones, along with the visions of her mother along with her, Ellie takes a brave step of making it in the city alone, which glitters and beckons all those who venture into the heart of it. However, Wright introduces an element of seedy unease right from the first few shots of Soho – be it in the form of the predatory comments made by the cab driver or the neon-lit alleys that point towards an unsavory underbelly that lurks beneath the city. While Ellie notices these elements, she decides to give the vibrant streets and nightclubs of Soho a chance when she goes out with Jocasta and the girls, although never quite fitting in.
It is interesting to note that Ellie is not only acutely aware of the fact that she stands out, but also actively embraces it in a way that’s self-nurturing. Unable to deal with the toxicity of her classmates, Ellie makes the immediate decision to move to a bedsit, which re-affirms her outlook in life in terms of look, feel, and overall vibe. Although Ellie essentially alienates herself from her peers, this sense of loneliness is never suffocating or self-limiting. On the contrary, Ellie welcomes her initial visions of Sandy, viewing them as a beautiful window into the past, and a respite from the breakneck, postmodern lifestyle in Soho. While there is unadulterated freedom in this sort of self-exploration, there’s also the danger of not knowing when to get help or lean on another when absolutely necessary. This sense of obliviousness is reflected when Ellie repeatedly rejects John’s advances for emotional comfort or when she dives headfirst into interrogating Lindsay, who she believes to be Jack.
The parallels of Ellie’s loneliness with Sandie’s are, in no form, tonally similar, as the latter underwent years of disenfranchisement and abuse, unable to escape a corrupt underbelly of false promises and forced sex work. However, Ellie, who initially idolizes Sandie and everything she stands for, soon realizes the bitter reality of her situation – Sandie is yet another young girl who had fallen prey to the cycle of systemic abuse, alone, cut off from the world around her. Desperate to reach out to a lonely, broken girl in the past, Ellie yearns to hold, connect, reassure Sandie in any way possible – culminating in the bone-chilling scene in which she breaks the glass and hugs her in an attempt to make her feel a little less alone. While Sandie/Ms. Collins never found true solace or companionship in another human being; Ellie’s presence during her final moments is most likely the only time she felt seen, understood, and heard by someone who truly cared.
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Time is fluid in Last Night in Soho, especially when Ellie’s dream sequences start bleeding into her waking reality, making it near-impossible for her to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not. The past often dictates our current psycho-social patterns, cemented by the unhealed wounds of trauma, which often manifest in the ugliest of ways. This is reflected in the way in which Ms. Collins is never able to let go of the house in which she lived, as it was a site of horrors, a graveyard for men who had abused her and attempted to steal her personal agency. While Sandie killed Jack and those men years ago, the visceral nature of these events lived on and haunted the four walls of Ellie’s bedsit, seeping into her subconscious mind to the point of interfering with her reality. The past, however, is never dead, as whatever Sandie underwent is still a reality for thousands of women, robbed of their dreams with no way out.
Wright intentionally blends the emotional intensity of 1960s British dramas with the saturated style of Italian giallos, which helps paint a picture of a past that is sweet, nostalgic, and filled with cinematic beauty. However, all that glitters is not gold – while Ellie is enamored by the lull of a time that precedes her, aching to belong to a world that has already gone by, she is soon exposed to the abject ugliness of Sandie’s reality. Unable to let go of the past, Ellie wishes to solve the seemingly decades-old case to bring Sandie to justice, putting herself in real danger in the process, while being driven to the edge of sanity. The ghosts of Sandie’s abusers haunt Ellie in broad daylight, groping her body in uncomfortable ways, egging her on to take revenge on their behalf. Although Ms. Collins/Sandie unjustifiably lashes out at Ellie and John due to her own trauma, it is important to understand that at no point does Eloise view her as a villain, or moralize her actions. She simply says that she understands, leaving audiences with uncomfortable truths and no easy answers.
At the end of Last Night in Soho, Ellie is no longer under the thrall of the past, no longer haunted by a time that preceded her. While she is still influenced by certain elements of the ‘60s, as reflected in elements of her designs in her fashion show, she is no longer molded solely by the glamor of it all. By the end, Ellie understands the complicated legacy of nostalgia, especially when intertwined by trauma, and how some hauntings, like that of her mother and Sandie in the end, are rooted in acts of forgiveness, acceptance, and healing.
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Last Night in Soho is a 2021 Horror Thriller film directed by Edgar Wright.