Nostalgia and Gender Politics in Last Night in Soho
Pollyanna Roberts discusses the dual-pronged danger of nostalgia and subversion of gender tropes in Edgar Wright’s latest film.
Edgar Wright blurs the line between fantasy and nightmare in his latest release, Last Night in Soho, where he paints an awe-inspiring picture of 60s London before turning on its head to illustrate it as a dangerous and unforgiving place. The society presented is sexually-charged, overspilling with misogyny, and yet, initially, this is all masked by the compelling music and notorious fashion, meaning that the audience, along with our protagonist Eloise Turner (Thomasin McKenzie), fall into the trap of nostalgia.
For Eloise, this is a trap she willingly steps into. From the opening scene, Wright emphasizes Eloise’s love for the 60s, her creativity and design inspired by vintage fashion, her record player blasting out hits, everything living up to the name of the “swinging sixties”. Yet when starting out at the London College of Fashion, Eloise sticks out like a sore thumb; this is a modern world that chews her up and spits her out again; she cannot seem to find her place. So when the opportunity arises to rent out a bedsit, she seizes it, unaware that this is only the beginning of her nostalgic journey. As soon as she falls asleep, she is transported to the 1960s. Audience members all over the globe can relate to the fondness of looking back at the past, a form of escapism that entices and satisfies this need to be somewhere different, somewhere better. Of course, when we do look back, we do so with rose-tinted glasses. We see the bars, the singers, the dancing. We see what could have been and take note of what is absent in modern society. Wright completely lures the audience in, playing on everyone’s nostalgia, hitting at the nerves that make us yearn for a world long past. Struggling with university, fitting in and finding her place in 2021, Eloise instead chooses to find it in the 1960s.
Sandie’s dream to be a star is burst into a thousand pieces of dust
When in her dream – which tiptoes the border between real and fantasy – Eloise’s timidity and quiet nature is a stark contrast to that of the wild, vibrant and eye-catching Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a star in the making to whom we are introduced. We follow Sandie’s journey as she attempts to make her way to the stage and become a star. She meets the handsome and powerful Jack (Matt Smith), who promises to get her on the stage. Just like Sandie and Eloise, we too were beguiled by Jack’s charm. However, this is the 60s and Wright is not afraid to flip our perspective and explore the sexually-violent culture that Jack was a part of. In a time where sexuality was finally being embraced, even praised, there were bound to be some that would want to dominate this newfound liberation. The gender politics set clearly in place, men were in charge and women were at their disposal, rendered silent. Sandie’s dream to be a star is burst into a thousand pieces of dust, and we witness the light inside of her fade into nothingness; Jack tears her apart and forces her to become a girl of the night.
Sandie’s character assassination is mirrored by Eloise’s own spiral into the depths of mania. Eloise’s adoration for Sandie becomes all-consuming and she ends up losing herself in the performer. She dyes her hair, alters her attitude, becoming more distant from her true self. Yet, Eloise does not realise that by adopting Sandie’s persona, she is also inheriting her ghosts – the men that took Sandie for one thing only. Wright illustrates the dangers of nostalgia and the importance of remaining grounded: Eloise becomes a victim, just like Sandie did. When Eloise witnesses Sandie’s murder in the very same bed that she lies in every night, she is left with a void inside of her, soon desperate to find Jack and expose what he did.
The film plays with the “good for her” cinematic trope wherein the woman rises up and fights back
As the film reaches its climax, we too are desperate for justice for Sandie but Wright continues to keep his audience guessing. Just as Eloise does, the audience presumes that Jack murdered Sandie. That Jack, losing his temper, frustrated with Sandie’s defiance, slit her throat in an act of toxic masculinity – nothing, sadly, unusual in a time where men were viewed as the dominant sex. But we’ve fallen into another trap, fuelled by systemic sexism, because it was not Jack that killed Sandie. In fact, Sandie was never even murdered, it was she who murdered Jack; the victim rose up and killed the person who killed her spirit. Wright has completely subverted the expectation, all the abuse and misogyny that Sandie endured has only emboldened her. The film thus plays with the “good for her” cinematic trope wherein the woman rises up and fights back against the patriarchal society that she lives in. Wright has not only turned the gender politics of the time on its head, exposing the rampant misogyny that permeated the 1960s and making a woman the victor, but he has also conveyed the strength of nostalgia. We see past worlds and are washed with serotonin, as though under the influence of some drug, and if we go too deep, as Eloise did, we lose ourselves and become something we are not. While Eloise’s journey of self-discovery was unruly and cruel, she does indeed find herself again in the end – and as we say for Sandie, good for her.