Saturday, November 27, 2021

Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho gets everything about feminism – and race – wrong

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The director’s new psychological thriller from the 1960s, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, has its charms – but its supposed principles are everywhere

Allegedly influenced by the stylish, semi-supernatural Italian giallo slasher flicks of the ’70s, the film tells the story of Eloise (McKenzie), a nostalgically obsessed first-year fashion student, and Naif, who moves to London and begins to dream vividly Night of a glamorous swinging 60s alter ego named Sandie (Taylor-Joy). Sandie has a great wardrobe and a nice nightclub owner friend (Matt Smith) who goes with it.

When there are some notable horror shocks Last night in SohoBiggest surprise, Edgar Wright’s new fantasy thriller starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie, is that it isn’t the feminist allegory she thinks it is.

But the fantasy soon fades into nightmarish reality as McKenzie begins to suspect that a) Sandie was a real person and b) Sandie has suffered a terrible fate and is now reaching for her from beyond the grave – with increasingly alarming methods, using phantoms and visions penetrate Eloise’s waking life.

Wright’s film has its joys first – mostly in the aesthetics of his dream world with its babydoll mini dresses and chrome-spoke wheeled cars. It seems to be a “Be careful what you want” reminder to those who, regardless of its perils, long to live in the past – not least sexism, especially in the case of Sandie, who was drawn into the maelstrom of Soho’s sex becomes industry.

And this is where the chrome spoke wheels begin to fall off. Forced into sex work against her will, Sandie is violently bullied by screaming Cockney men who tell her that this is the only way to achieve her dreams of becoming a singer. It’s a blunt portrayal of sex work that strips Taylor-Joy’s character of any sense of agency and turns her into a doe-eyed victim that Eloise, a young modern girl knows, has to “save”.

Demonizing sex work as a trade that can only lead to misery and death is pretty easy if you want to blame patriarchy in your film. But then the last big twist from Last night in Soho arrives. Sandie’s presumed death is turned upside down and the switch flipped to the expected narration of her victim role, but in a way that has no sense of empowerment or foresight.

The idea that a woman perceived as a victim might actually be a perpetrator is nowhere near as interesting as Wright thinks. Newsflash: Women can be bad people too.

A smaller scene in the film is also revealing. When Eloise has a consensual sexual encounter with a fellow student, John (Michael Ajao, deplorable), she is puzzled by her frightening hallucinations of the past. She beats John, screams into the night and throws the young black man out of her room, threatening to call the police.

The implication that the main character could call the police about an innocent black man – and that this man will easily forgive her the next time he sees her – is egregious and makes him a “color-blind” prop for her tense mindset.

Wright’s co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns said the film was “about the exploitation of women. And the exploitation of any marginalized group, really ”. But presenting an idea does not mean confronting it.

The (obviously very white) feminism of this film has no self-esteem and no weight, even when it tries to deal with things as serious as sex work and male violence. Last night in Soho may be a bit of retro fun, but its politics are as shallow as a puddle.

Last night in Soho (18) will be in cinemas on Friday, October 29th

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