Every year a group of bloggers and I write about fearless fictional women to celebrate International Women’s Day. Each of these bloggers will be featured on my blog this year. The blog-a-thon started with Michael of My Comic Relief and, after my post, will go on to feature Nancy and Kathleen of Graphic Novelty2 and Jeff of The Imperial Talker. Here’s my contribution to the Blog-a-thon this year!
Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho opens in the warm home of a quaint British town, a home where main character Eloise basks in her vintage-inspired bedroom listening to music from the 60s. The opening scene is so reminiscent of life sixty years ago, in fact, that we may suspect that we are in 1961, not 2021, and because of Wright’s ability to establish a scene we may also feel like we’re temporarily inhabiting a much more idyllic time period than our own. Certainly, that is what Eloise/Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) imagines, the main character who we meet in the film’s beginning. Ellie has just been accepted to fashion school, and we get the impression, based on her excitement, that a glittering life in Great Britain’s fashion hub looks just as perfect, just as idyllic, as the 1960s do in her eyes. But sometimes attractive surface appearances mask a more insidious lurking reality—a fact which may be true of Soho in general, and is definitely true of Soho in the 60s, a reality that Ellie will soon find out.
Last Night in Soho is about Ellie and Sandie (Ana Taylor-Joy), neither of whom have a last name, according to the internet. Ellie is a girl who doesn’t fit in at her Soho fashion school, but who seems, initially, quite at home in the visions that surround her in her sleep after she decides to leave the dorm room she shares with a group of mean girls and take residence in a quaint apartment on the top floor of an old woman’s house. One night she goes to sleep, and she “wakes up” –or so it seems—in the glittering Soho of the 1960s. Sandie is the girl she partially embodies when she has these dreams, which are actually, for the most part, visions of the past. When Ellie enters 1960-something Soho, instead of seeing herself in the mirror in a nightgown, she sees a similarly young but glamourous, fancily attired girl, Sandie, who is evidently new on the Soho scene but looks confident and intentional. Ostensibly, Sandie wants to be a Soho performer, and when she meets a good-looking guy named Jack who knows how to move on the dance floor, she thinks she’s found her connection to fame and success. Little does she know that Jack is preying on her, attracting her into forced prostitution with his false visions of fame and fortune. Jack becomes Sandie’s pimp, and Sandie becomes the girl who used to inhabit Ellie’s room, where she was forced to have sex with multiple partners.
The events that happen in Soho in 1960s are continuously juxtaposed with Ellie’s life in contemporary culture, and when Ellie falls asleep at night, she continues to embody Sandie’s 1960s Soho existence, an existence that seems so real that the visions start filtering into her day to day life. She becomes obsessed with Sandie, a young woman who was used for sex and who, according to one of Ellie’s visions, was killed by Jack, who turned out to be far more malicious and abusive than he seemed at the beginning of the film. To those around her Ellie probably appears mad as the visions flood her own vision, lingering at the forefront of her psyche and provoking, within her, an obsession with Sandie’s narrative. (Major spoilers abound from here on out). Toward the end of the narrative, we learn that Sandie, who used to lie about her name, changed her name and actually is the old woman who owns the house. But Ellie has started seeing the ghosts of men, and it turns out that Sandie, rather than being murdered, was actually the one who murdered the men that used her for sex. Toward the end of the film, Sandie’s house is on fire, and the ghosts of Sandie’s old lovers are taunting Ellie to kill Sandie. But instead, Ellie says to Sandie, “I’m sorry about what happened to you” and tries to convince Sandie to escape. Sandie slits her throat, and Ellie escapes the burning house with her friend John. The last scene is another perhaps too idyllic scene in which Ellie is the star of her school’s fashion show, a position she seems to have earned by creating the dress that Sandie wore in her first vision.
There’s more complexity and nuance to the plot than what I’ve just written about, but a “gist” is enough to explore what’s going on in Last Night in Soho. This post, of course, is about Ellie and Sandie, and in line with the topic of the yearly blogathon that I’m a part of, one thing I need to do is look at their fearlessness. I think, though, that a closer look at the significance of myriad aspects of the story will make it clear why I think Ellie, and even Sandie, are fearless—according, at least, to one reading of the story. Alternative readings could yield different conclusions, but especially after discussing the film with Michael of My Comic Relief, another writer in this blogathon, what I provide, below, is my take on what I’ve seen. This is, overall, a riveting film – stylistically complex and unique, in line with a lot of the more unique, artistic, “elevated” horror that we’ve seen from different directors over the past decade. Edgar Wright, of course, is not a horror director, and at times the film feels more like a thriller than outright horror, but the atmospheric nature of some of his scenes, the vengeful ghosts that appear in throngs toward the end of the scene, the “rape-revenge” feel of the film, and the fine line between reality and illusion are all tropes that are prevalent in the horror genre, and also in this film.
Of course, Ellie is evidently fearless for surviving her visions, and for surviving what turns out to be a traumatic experience in general, but I think there’s more going on in this film than Ellie’s ability to overcome trauma, understand Sandie, and take a stand against the men who used Sandie for sex at the end of the film – although assuredly all of those things, alone, could be examples of fearlessness. Given the precarious nature of Sandie’s situation throughout the film, I’m going to argue that the film dangles the sexually violent, objectifying nature of patriarchal culture in the viewer’s face – maybe, and I suggest only maybe comparing it to rape culture – and forces the viewer to confront this reality at the same time that Ellie is slowly confronting it. This is, after all, a story that is largely about disillusionment, and in a bizarre, twisted way, it’s a bleak, depressing take on the buildungsroman, or the “coming of age” story. Ellie is transitioning, presumably, from high school to college, and life in Soho—both the exterior reality that she faces, and the visions that occupying Soho provokes for her—strip away her illusions of pleasantry and glamour—illusions she had associated with the 1960s, and with Soho. Ellie faces the reality of patriarchy, misogyny, and sexual abuse through the visions she experiences, and while she’s immersed suddenly in the reality of misogyny and rape culture, she sees it, first hand, for what it is, and—if the ending is to be believed—she emerges victoriously and gains accolade from her peers for her new dress design.
The first thing I’ll say, here, is that I don’t know much about “prostitution,” sometimes called sex work, and I’m not making a statement about it here. I imagine sex work can be a very different experience for different people, and I’m not necessarily equating voluntary sex work with rape. But Sandie is clearly duped at the beginning of the film. Jack, her pimp, presents himself as Sandie’s savior. The first time he and Sandie meet, he fights a man who appears to harass her, and he leads her to believe that he’s helping her reach her ultimate goal, which is to be a performer in Soho. It’s clear in the narrative that being a performer is Sandie’s aim, but Jack convinces her that the only way to get there is to prostitute herself, a choice that she has to make, in part, probably because of cultural circumstances and her lack of options in Soho. (Significantly, we know astonishingly little about Sandie’s back story, which in my mind makes it easier to universalize the experience of her character—a point I’ll touch on later). One might make the point Sandie probably had other options to secure her survival, and I’ll partially concede this point, but after meeting Jack, Sandie is almost unknowingly pulled into his world of sexual abuse. The scenes between Jack and Sandie in the narrative, and the narrative positioning of Jack as a potentially violent villain with a virulent temper, make it relatively obvious that once Sandie enters Jack’s world, she’s stuck: she’s no longer free to leave, even if she had anywhere to go. The line between sex work and rape thus becomes rather hazy, especially since the film does not, for obvious reasons, show us many sexual acts in detail. And Sandie’s unhappiness is concomitantly clear throughout the narrative, placing her, with relative certainty, in the victim category. I imagine there are viewers who would argue that prostitution was Sandie’s choice, but I don’t think the film suggests this, at all. I think Sandie is forced into her situation, which is the basis, in my mind, for the entire message of the film.
And one message of the film is that in present day, as in the 1960s, in Great Britain—and perhaps, to an extent, in many places in Western culture, although that’s only an inferential generalization—it’s rather frightening to be a woman. Take Eloise, for example. In her pastel pink bedroom in her grandmother’s house, listening to quaint circa 1965 music, she appears the epitome of a teenager, more a character in a coming of age movie like Now and Then than she is a character in a horror story. We know she has visions of her dead mother, but this seems, at best, a sidenote; her life looks sheltered and comfortable, and the sixties, represented in the mis-en-scene by a record player, some 60s classics, and some vintage décor, seem as nostalgic and delightful as any fan of all things retro would hope. But as soon as she gets to Soho, things transform. We get the sense, at first, that a sketchy cab driver is going to abduct her; men immediately seem dangerous and predatorial in this scene, and indeed, on a few occasions, men make uncomfortable advances at Ellie that are more frightening than they are romantic. To be sure, the film is careful not to indict “all men”; Ellie makes a friend with romantic potential named John who turns out to be a genuinely good guy, and a person she can rely on. But the seedy underbelly of Soho emerges immediately when Ellie leaves the village, the way it probably did in the woods the first time Hansel and Gretel left home. And while she has to contend with mean girls at the fashion school and the reality of financial hardships (all elements of disillusionment and the process of “coming of age,”) the scariest thing she has to deal with, even before her visions start, appear to be men. This is not, I will emphasize, a film that argues that all men are “bad,” only that misogyny is still rampant in a culture that was founded on patriarchy, and for that reason, life can still be pretty scary for a woman. Or, as Lilly Allen sings, “it’s hard out here for a bitch.”
One might think that when Eloise escapes the drunken debauchery of college dorm life and finds a little apartment in a building owned by an old woman who will only rent to women, things will get better for her. But that’s when her lucid dreams of the past begin, dreams that filter into her waking reality eventually, and dreams that lead her to believe that the room she’s in now was the room where Sandie was forced into prostitution every night—hardly a place that represents escape from danger. To be fair, Eloise very much likes these dreams, at first, before they become alarming. When John asks her if she has plans one night, she says “yes” instead of hanging out with him, because she wants to dream that she’s Sandie in 1960s Soho like she did the night before. This, too, is probably a commentary on culture and the everyday reality surrounding Ellie—she’d rather live in a dream world than contend with the reality that she’s a part of—but soon the dream and the reality become nightmarish.
If reality is nightmarish for Ellie, we might begin to suspect that we can universalize her experience. After all, life was evidently nightmarish—and much more so—for Sandie in the 1960s, and neither Ellie nor Sandie have last names, making them less unique and more capable of being represented as sort of “every-women” in the film—female characters who stand in, in part, for the experiences of a broader population. And this is partially true because Ellie and Sandie are kind of like foils and doppelgangers at the same time. Sandie is Ellie’s foil because they seem different in a lot of ways. Sandie seems less sheltered, more “on her own,” more interested in partying, more glamorous, more forward, and Ellie, though certainly independent and strong, is characterized as a sort of quiet country girl lost in her day dreams. One character, then, highlights the opposing traits of another character, as foils tend to do. But what blows my mind here is that despite the fact that these women are drastically different, the narrative seems to want us to see them, in part, as interchangeable. In Ellie’s first or second night-time vision of 1960s Soho, she looks in a mirror and sees Sandie’s face staring back at her. In one complex camera shot, when Sandie is first dancing with Jack, Sandie literally becomes Ellie in the same shot. Despite the fact that these women are drastically different, they are evidently highly complimentary in the narrative. This suggests two things to me: first, they share similar subject positions in Western patriarchal culture, a subject position that most women have, and second, in the eyes of a misogynist patriarchy, these two very different characters are interchangeable because they are objectified the way women tend to be objectified in a patriarchal system that sacrifices the personhood of women for the well-being of men.
Of course, the truth eventually comes out: despite Sandie’s victimhood, she killed the men she slept with and thus became a mass murderer. The ghosts of the murder victims start populating Ellie’s visions more and more, showing up not just at night but in the day time, everywhere Ellie is, including public places like the library. And the ghosts want what most ghosts want in horror movies—revenge. And in one of the concluding scenes, when the house is burning and the ghosts are surrounding Ellie again, Ellie gets the chance to take their revenge; this is when Sandie asks to die, and Ellie, instead of leaping at the chance to kill a woman who killed multiple people herself, only says, in a powerful moment “I’m sorry about what happened to you.” It is clear that Eloise sees Sandie as a victim. More importantly, still, she is being mercilessly haunted by the ghosts of the men Sandie killed, and at the right moment, when she has the opportunity to kill Sandie and to placate the specters, she chooses, instead, to offer her empathy and condolences and to urge Sandie to escape, despite the fact that as far as she knows, she’ll be haunted by the ghosts of Sandie’s own victims for the rest of her life. But Sandie cuts her own throat instead and urges Eloise to get away, solidifying the rare, bizarre, self-sacrificing friendship that exists between the two women.
I am a student of monsters, so I’m always interested, in movies like this, in who the monster is. An in this film, misogyny and patriarchy – and perhaps, even, rape culture – are the monstrosities. And, as is true of many monster films, you only have to encounter the monster for a certain period of time before you, yourself, become a monster, too. This is the plight of Sandie, who exhibits her own fearlessness by doing the only thing she really can do to protect herself in a miserable, near-hostage situation where she’s being kept as a sort of sex slave. It is not easy to kill another human being; as humans, we are not wired to kill our own. Especially at the end of the film, when Sandie kills herself for the benefit of Ellie and John, we get the sense that Sandie, far from being a psychopath, is a beleaguered woman who did what she had to do to protect herself, even if doing so was hard—and ethically problematic. Perhaps Sandie’s fearlessness lies in the fact that when faced with two negative alternatives, she prioritized herself (in a good way), and chose to do what would harm herself less, preserving her own humanity, in a way, even as she had to sacrifice some of it to save herself.
Ellie, in a similar light, is clearly fearless. By experiencing the shock of daily life in Soho and by dipping into Sandie’s dark dreams at night, all of her illusions about life are smashed. She sees the 60s in Soho for what they were, in secret, and she stares the monster in the face: she confronts the reality of misogyny and abuse head on in a way that she never had to before, and she emerges, victoriously and with more empathy than she likely had at the beginning of the film. Similarly, the film suggests that a similar thing might have happened to her mother, and so Ellie learns this difficult information, but still she moves forward. The ending scene shows some of the “mean girls” telling Ellie that she’s “so brave” when her dress design wins accolades at the fashion show. And Ellie is, undoubtedly brave, but not in the way these women probably think. Haunted by visions, harassed by ghosts, Ellie starts seeing culture for what it really is, but she brushes herself off and remains unafraid. Her future might linger in uncertainty – after all, we always want to know if the monster is dead at the end of the film, and certainly the monsters of patriarchy and misogyny are not. But Ellie knows this, and she triumphs at the end anyway, achieving her dream and winning the admiration of those who condescended to her at the beginning of the film. If she’s learned enough about culture in these visions, then it’s possible she’s learned that she, and the women who surround her, will never be 100% okay, but, as Mitch McConnell said about Elizabeth Warren on the congressional floor, “nevertheless, she persisted.”