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The Ghosts of Grief: A Review of Last Night in Soho

Red Light District, Photograph by Garry Knight, Creative Commons 2.0

By Samuel Sandor

23rd October 2021

I believe--I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always--take any form--drive me mad.

 

Heathcliff shrieks this strange request in the general direction of Cathy’s ghost in Wuthering Heights. Like Brontë’s novel, Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho is deeply concerned with grief and haunting. On the surface, the film is about nostalgia in the same way Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is. We’re introduced to a magical and almost mythic recent past only to be told it’s not as glamorous as we thought it was. Rose-tinted nostalgia is just a vehicle for Wright, though – a vehicle in which rides the protagonist Eloise’s (Thomasin McKenzie) grief for her mother.

 

From the very start, Eloise is haunted by the ghost of her deceased mother in the mirror. She is not scared by it, but this is not to say it does not affect her. Indeed, her grandmother (Rita Tushingham) is worried enough to mention the recurring phenomenon while seeing her granddaughter off to university.

 

Once she has reached her new home, that of the London School of Fashion, Eloise’s ghostly hauntings take a different form; that of a girl named Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy), an aspiring singer in the 60s, and her increasingly unsavoury acquaintances. The majority of the film covers Eloise’s interactions with 60s Soho. She is obsessed with the past in a way that seems to stem inexorably from her unsolved grief for her deceased mother. Eloise longs to rescue her mother from the past but cannot bring her back to life, so instead, like Heathcliff laying himself in Cathy’s grave, Eloise returns to the past. This is subtextual, but Cathy’s bereavement undeniably feeds into her nostalgia. Although the hauntings which Eloise experiences are by no means pleasant, they are, in at least one way, a reflection of what she desires.

 

Be with me always. Eloise craves her mother’s presence to such an extent that she manifests her apparition in the mirror. The mirror, too, is often where she sees Sandy. The unstated though central denouement with regards to Eloise’s grief is the realisation that her mother, as well as the 60s, will always be with her in some form. While she succeeds in taking up the mantle of her mother’s dream of being a fashion designer, the 60s remain with her through the incorporation of its style into her designs for the catwalk show. The arc of Eloise’s self-enforced, horror-tinged nostalgia neatly maps onto her undealt-with grief. This is where the strength of Wright’s picture lies. The comparison between a longing for a cultural past and a personal past is a compelling one, and one that allows Last Night to be both a moving coming-of-age film and a genuinely scary psychological horror film – not just concurrently but simultaneously. Thematically, it is a unique and interesting film, both within the horror genre and the time travel genre. As always, Wright brings something new and unexpected to every genre he attempts.

 

Nevertheless, while the film is thematically strong, it is stylistically unexceptional – perhaps even disappointing. Although some of my disappointment comes unavoidably from my liking for Wright’s previous work, which Last Night diverges noticeably from, this is not the sole source. Wright’s editing has always been showy – this is one of the joys of his work; you’ll never see so much care put into the capturing of a pint being poured, but Last Night occasionally takes this a little too far. Eloise’s eyes are reflected impossibly in the sheen of a knife in one central scene, an effect which is done in such a way as to feel cartoonish at best and offputtingly garish at worst. Still, Wright’s ambitious, often hyperaesthetic new approach does lead to some truly striking moments. The first time Eloise is transported back to 60s Soho is a truly magical and entrancing sequence. The scene culminates in a painstakingly decorated shot of Soho’s Haymarket which is enough to make even the least sentimental audience member want to dust off a copy of Rubber Soul and play it loud enough to drown out the dialogue of a flagrantly sexist Bond film. Indeed, Last Night captures 60s Soho very effectively, both in terms of set and costumes, but not always in a flattering way. Stuart Brown, head of programme and acquisitions at BFI, described the film in a post-showing Q&A as a ‘love letter’ to Soho – if this is true, then it’s a love letter in an abusive and bipolar relationship, perhaps even a breakup letter. Although Soho may have been (and may continue to be) glitzy, vibrant and exciting, it is also corrupt and destructive – another central strand of the film.

 

It also must not go unsaid that both the horrifying and the emotional side of the film are bolstered hugely by McKenzie’s subtle and convincing performance. Taylor-Joy’s performance is also noteworthy, though as a dreamlike romanticisation of the past, her acting is slightly more animated and exaggerated – this role she executes well, however.

 

Ultimately, Wright’s shift in style, which Machliss (the film’s editor) suggested his new cinematographer Jeong Jeong-hun had a role in, may have harmed the film. Yet, in spite of this, Last Night touches innovatively and sensitively on some difficult topics that Wright has not dealt with too much in the past (not just grief, but sexual exploitation too). At its foundation, the film has good bones – better perhaps than some of Wright’s more acclaimed work, even if the execution (acting aside) is occasionally a little shaky. Moreover, it is quite possible that the issues with the film are more an adverse symptom of development than an early sign of decline. The spectre of the brilliance of Wright’s past work looms large, though – it is crucial that his next film can learn from the successes and failures of Last Night; because the potential in this new style is very much there.

Last Night in Soho is out in UK cinemas on 29th October.