Last Night in Soho (Extended Take)

If you prefer my quick take, which is free of spoilers, please click here.

In Soho, Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) is enraptured by all things Sixties and dreams of becoming a fashion designer.  When she’s accepted into the London College of Fashion, her doting Gram (Rita Tushingham) is concerned as to whether Eloise can handle life in the big city.  “London can be a bit much,” she warns Eloise, a phrase repeated several times in the movie for emphasis. (I’m guessing the London Tourism Office declined to use that for their upcoming marketing campaign.)

Eloise gets a harsh dose of reality immediately after arriving at the residence hall.  Her roommate is the leader of the local mean girl troupe and ridicules Eloise at every opportunity.  Realizing that she’s not cut out for the partying lifestyle of her fellow students, Eloise rents a charming flat in Soho from Ms. Collins (the inimitable Diana Rigg, in what would be her last film role).  Eloise feels right at home, and falls asleep listening to Grams’s 45’s.

That night, Eloise dreams she’s transported to Sixties Soho.  (A theater marquee emblazoned with Thunderball clues us into the year: 1965.)  Eloise heads to a local dance hall and discovers to her surprise that instead of seeing herself in the mirror, she sees a gorgeous blond woman dressed in a pink chiffon dress.  The woman says her name is Alexandria and is played by current “it girl” and Chess Queen Anya Taylor-Joy.

Alexandria is on a mission to become a singer, and naively believes that local hustler Jack (a pugnaciously charming Matt Smith) and his promises can make her dreams come true.  The scene where the two of them fall in love on the dance floor is the high point of the movie.  Initially Alexandria and Jack are paired together, moving in harmony as if they were meant to be together.  But then, through the magic of deft editing, Eloise appears in Alexandria’s place.  The two continue to trade places dancing with Jack until the song ends and Eloise has completely fallen in love with her surrogate life.  The scene is transfixing and a joy to watch.  

On each night that follows, Eloise eagerly travels back in time, where Alexandria’s life serves as both wish fulfillment and inspiration for her designs.  Like most movies that feature time travel as a plot device, the conceit doesn’t make a lot of sense but works because Wright and his leading ladies sell it convincingly.  Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t maintain this playfully sexy tone past the first act, instead devolving into an unsatisfying combination of horror and murder mystery tropes.

Alexandria’s ambition blinds her to the real intent behind Jack’s machinations, and she goes along with his advice to work in a burlesque show as a stepping stone towards her singing career.  Like all pimps, Jack is desensitizing Alexandria for a career in sex work, and forcibly  transitions her into a dance hall prostitute.  When she threatens to leave Jack, he brutally kills her, a scene Eloise “sees”.  Haunted by the visions of the murder of her  of her idol, Eloise sets out to uncover Jack’s identity so that Alexandria’s murder can be resolved.  Eloise begins having visions that are either ghosts from Alexandria’s past or signs that her mental state is deteriorating.

While I enjoyed parts of Soho, I found the movie to be less than the sum of its parts.  Wright’s hyper-stylized direction kept my interest throughout, and his vision of Sixties London definitely grooves.  The soundtrack is filled with songs of the period, the streets blare with flashing neon lights and any fashionista would die for Taylor-Joy’s wardrobe.

Wright wisely chose Taylor-Joy as his Venus, and she plays Alexandria with a sly “just try and get in my way” determination.  Her initial foray into singing is both convincing and moving.  Unfortunately, Alexandria’s character is all style and no substance.  Her character’s motivations are never realized as anything beyond wanting to be a singer.  Ultimately, her character’s demise is all too predictable, until Wright decides to throw a twist in at the end that I just didn’t buy.

As Eloise, McKenzie is adorable but she overplays the “wide-eyed girl” aspect of her character a bit much.  She’s much more effective when she’s playing the shy, cautious, insecure girl far away from home.  Her scenes with her Gram and boyfriend John (Michael Ajao) were emotionally honest and rang true, and there should have been more of them.

Soho is at its best when it focuses on Eloise and Alexandria, contrasting their personalities (the former is timid and virginal while the later is confident and sexual) while at the same time revealing them to be kindred spirits.  Both harbor dreams of making it in the Big City, and that is the theme I wished the movie had explored more honestly.  

Taylor-Joy and McKenzie both acquit themselves well, but I felt that the stories of their respective characters, when taken individually, were not that interesting.  Instead of fully investing in the story of either character, Wright stitches the two stories together with a horror movie structure that just doesn’t do either character justice.  If Wright’s passion for Sixties Soho was the reason he made this movie, he should have kept his movie in that period and created a real story for Alexandria.  In dividing his attention between two worlds, Wright doesn’t fully realize either.

Michael Ajao plays John, Eloise’s love interest and one of the few fully-realized characters in the movie.  I have no idea what John sees in Eloise.  She’s cute, and can draw well.  But what is it about her that he likes?  She mostly acts like a crazy person around him.  I know all guys want to be with a crazy girl once in their lives, but Eloise?

Terence Stamp has a nice bit as the Silver Haired Gentleman. I’m amazed that he can still create the old menace as an eighty-three year old.  The plot requires him to be confoundingly vague enough to make Eloise suspect him of being Jack, when if he had just told her who he was and what his connection to Alexandria was like a normal person, his character would have met a far better fate than it did.

Since I’ve only seen Baby Driver, I can’t say if Soho marks Wright’s first attempt at a feminist narrative or not.  What he does in Soho came off as regressive on two fronts.  Alexandria’s rapid descent into prostitution felt predictable.  Wright gives her no agency and she is presented as a victim.  Then, in a plot twist that comes from out of nowhere, Wright attempts to remedy this problem by turning her into a vigilante.  I’m not an expert on feminism, but the version of feminism on display in this movie just felt wrong.

A few side notes…

When Eloise spends all her money on Sixties fashion, she manages to get a job at a pub.  This after the publican discovers that she’s never worked in a pub before.  I never knew that anyone and everyone can work at a pub with no experience.  I also wouldn’t be surprised if more than a few barkeeps in London took offense to this cavalier notion.

One big question that remained unanswered for me was what was the source of Eloise’s visions.  The movie wants to convince us that she has a mental disorder like her mother, and wants us to see Eloise as suffering from schizophrenia.  If you see this movie, ask yourself, how does Eloise see what she sees?  The only answer I could come up with is that Eloise can read minds.  She must be picking up the thoughts of Ms. Collins.  But then why does she see Alexandria getting killed when it was the other way around?  My head hurts.

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