Not All Men: Sex And Power In Last Night In Soho

Edgar Wright centres women for the first time in his ode to 1960s London, but maybe he shouldn't have – this feminism is bleak and insulting, finds Ella Kemp

A good girl is one who knows when to give up. She knows who to fear, who to fight, when to run and which dreams just aren’t worth fighting for. She is the kind of girl who will know exactly what you mean when you tell her that “London can be a lot,” and she’ll nod, because she definitely hasn’t been told this a million times before, when you say that she’s better than this, that she doesn’t have to do that, that you really understand what it’s like to not belong.

These are the girls of Last Night in Soho, the first film directed by Edgar Wright (and co-written by Wright, alongside 1917’s Krysty Wilson-Cairns) to tell a story centring a woman. But the film is so condescending, cruel and rudimentary all at once – if viewed through a feminist lens, like every element is so stubbornly forcing you to – that you really do wonder whether Wright might not have been better off proving how much of an ally he is by quietly reposting a few cute infographics on Instagram about WHAT MEN CAN DO NEXT and be done with it.

(It feels essential to disclaim here that the following discusses gender in horribly basic, binary terms, in keeping with this reading of Wright’s film rather than a belief that extends beyond it.)


Here is a film that follows a young woman with hungry eyes and her heart set on the bright lights of the big smoke, who quickly finds herself out of her depth, isolated and anxious, and reconnects with the city’s past to find something to hold onto. Because Ellie, Thomasin McKenzie’s feeble, mumbling mess of a main character, desperately needs anything to hold onto. Wright and Wilson-Cairns give her nothing. No, sorry: she has a dead mother, a nondescript mental illness, fake friends, random and illogical love for three to five songs from the 1960s, a brief and boring love interest (the film’s one Black character, a kind young man forced into an awful, racist subplot), a terrible sense of fashion. Lucky, lucky Ellie.

The story kicks in when Ellie tumbles (she literally just falls asleep and has dreams and nightmares – another nod to a glossed-over mental condition) into the swinging ‘60s and finds herself in the heart of a booming nightclub, where she sees a glamorous aspiring actress and her new lover. Isn’t it exciting? Don’t you want what she has? To Wright’s credit, these initial fantasy scenes are gorgeous – wonderfully choreographed and designed, vibrant and sexy and hopeful – but then the glitter fades and cracks start to show. Entertainment is useless, annoying and offensive, if you’re undermining and even actively damaging the people you are claiming to honour.

Every problem with Last Night in Soho comes from just how hard Wright is trying to welcome other voices – namely from marginalised perspectives – into his dynamic, often thrilling worlds. His singular point of view is what has kept him going for two decades, and what does still work in some parts of this film too. But what’s so maddening is just how easily the director masters such complex, technical filmmaking in this film full of so many moving parts, yet falls flat on his face when reaching for a basic, respectful and vaguely well-rounded understanding of anyone who does not look, sound, think, or fuck – because, this ends up grimly colouring everything else – exactly like him.

Try he does, but the energy spent on drawing these characters feels to me like a slap in the face more than any selfless gesture. Here are good girls with big dreams (both Ellie in the present day and Anya Taylor-Joy’s Sandie in the past), fed lie after lie about what it means to thrive and suffer and survive in London. Take your pick of the nonsense: in this world, there is a direct line between sex work and sexual violence. Men must be feared, but only men who look and speak a certain way. A big city will eat you alive unless you poison it first. Your mind is playing tricks on you, and it’ll all go away if you simply ignore it for long enough. You really are so brave.

None of this is true, and so the story plays like a man who has learned about women by squinting and quickly scrolling past tearful confessions on social media and in faded history books rather than actually talking to one. Sexual violence has never been limited to sleazy men in suits (deliberately caricatured into grey, groaning zombies here, at once pathetic and completely unconvincing if Last Night in Soho claims to be such a love letter to chilling and thrilling giallo cinema). And so to feign a wariness and cynicism about the brutal threat all men pose – specifically as sexual predators – while limiting what that can look like to a woeful parody is disgraceful.

But even before Sandie and Ellie are forced to deal with microaggressions and major assault as part of their everyday (another bizarre and unnecessary leap is made when Ellie is told, matter of fact, that “being a whore’s a bit like being an actress.” The movies, baby!), Wright and Wilson-Cairns frame sex work as an inevitability and an embarrassment. You could say that these antiquated politics might make sense in a period piece – but Last Night in Soho makes such a point of making sense in a contemporary setting (a geographically accurate chase scene through Fitzrovia! Bow down!) that to still view sex work through such a blinkered lens, totally void of agency or power, reflects more on the outdated prejudice of its makers than the neglected women shamed and patronised into seeing themselves as objects and tools, because that’s all this film lets them be.

Whichever era you’re watching this from, that just isn’t true. None of this is. London, like any other place in the world, can and does hold danger for women of any age. But this melodramatic yet narrow-minded take points the blame at a certain kind of man and takes pity on a certain kind of woman, without actually listening to her or figuring out just how complex it all is. Everybody tells Ellie she needs help, yet nobody gives her the practical tools to find it. I find it hard to believe that you could have the resources to recreate today’s Soho so meticulously, yet you couldn’t signpost any mental health services at Ellie’s university (London College of Fashion found furious in a ditch), among her peers (who somehow miraculously forgive and forget Ellie for almost killing them with a pair of blunt scissors), or at the police station?

They mock her in the present day, but there’s also another hilarious, naive implication with another character that misunderstands power dynamics in which the police will definitely save and protect women suffering at the hands of violent men. Again, take your head out of the sand for just a second. And you really mean to tell me that this young woman can go through such staggering physical and emotional trauma (filmed with such cheap ketchup-horror tactics it’s humiliating) and then pick herself back up in time for a fashion show a matter of weeks or months later – after clearly processing some kind of unspoken trauma her entire life already – as if nothing happened? Please.

A recurring joke pokes fun at the shallow, throwaway tone in which young women can be told, “You’re so brave” for living through their pain, however big or small. But at the same time Last Night In Soho creates such a harsh reality for us to live in that it does force such an extreme binary, and by the end of the film Ellie has had to become brave, otherwise she would have simply been found dead. Kill these men or die a slut, we’re told.

Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman comes to mind, a film criticised for the climactic scenes in which a woman tricking men into believing she’s blackout drunk so she can take advantage of and humiliate them by simply explaining to them verbally what has happened, rather than physically trying to assault them, were deemed underwhelming. But they were so chilling because they ring true. In practice, slashing his throat won’t happen. You will not escape, you will not live by towering mantras like “I wasn’t going to let this city break me,” or miraculously get better on your own if you are unwell.

The high-octane horror of Last Night in Soho which sees a woman allegedly reclaim her agency by murdering all the men who have paid to have sex with her is ridiculous (and even more of a baffling misstep when you’re subsequently asked to sympathise with these dead perverts). And fantasy – demonising sex work and in the process trivialising the female body – doesn’t give anyone a way out when the film tries so hard to seesaw between realities. And in our contemporary reality words can cut like a knife, and are often the only weapons we have – when used properly.


With tears streaming down her face, Sandie tells Ellie towards the end of the film, “I didn’t want any of this.” She wanted to be a star, she wanted to find herself in Soho and bloom into an independent, passionate young woman who knows and trusts herself. This hope and ambition can involve men – it feels like Last Night in Soho is warning young women to mistrust every man who so much as looks at them (but, remember, only the rich bastards in suits! That pretty bartender is obviously definitely harmless!) – yet the film both demonises them and dehumanises us, as silly little girls who simply cannot handle how much London can be.

Last Night in Soho just isn’t enough of anything. It’s not consistently thrilling enough to succeed as a haywire make-believe nightmare, not sober or sensitive enough to hold any water as the true portrait of complex female victimhood and autonomy it thinks it is. Not all men are monsters, but then not all men need to fumble through tone-deaf feminism to prove just how much they care. There’s that saying about how if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all – I don’t think that fully applies here as the reality of navigating art, sex, power, trust and happiness as a young woman (and anyone else, I’m sure) is so often so unpleasant and exhausting. But at the same time, I didn’t want any of this either: If you don’t know what you’re talking about, I really wish you’d just listen.

Men have made so many thoughtful, layered films about women in the past, and women can also write terrible films about sexual politics and violence. It’s not a case of one or the other (or that there even is one or the other), of archaic gender wars that isolate and insult both sides. “Do I scare you?” one of The Bad Men sneers at Sandie at one point, and it’s that smug, stupid suggestion that makes the whole film crumble. It’s never been about fear. Fear implies there could also be some kind of hope, a tiny glimmer of light promising you really could make it out alive. Last Night in Soho dooms its women to a bleak future that only regrets the past and hates the present. It ignores and belittles the freedom, the potential and the real bravery that exists and keeps so many women going against and through it all even without all the glamour of a glossy lost era. You don’t have to be strong or powerful or fearless to be worthy of such foundational dignity.

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