THE STORY – It’s the 1920s, and there’s a scandal brewing in the charming seaside town of Littlehampton. Residents have started receiving anonymous, poison-pen letters brimming with curse words and scandalous prose. Who is writing them, and how can they be stopped? Edith Swan — pious and respected (if not well-liked) — is one of those residents. The letters assassinate her character in the most blue-tinged language imaginable and, when they start to stack up, her autocratic, scripture-quoting father Edward, insists the culprit be found. With law enforcement reluctantly investigating, Edith bandies a pet theory that her neighbour Rose might mean her harm. Rose is the opposite of Edith: loud, brash, a lover of spirits and dancing, and unapologetic about all of it. When the police arrest her in the letters case, assuming her guilt because of her “loose moral character,” it doesn’t sit well with Police Officer Gladys Moss. With her superiors unwilling to listen, she gathers a group of unlikely yet resourceful female volunteers to get to the bottom of the mystery.
THE CAST – Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Timothy Spall & Anjana Vasan
THE TEAM – Thea Sharrock (Director) & Jonny Sweet (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 102 Minutes
Olivia Colman has one of those faces. One that can be contorted into multiple gradations of a feeling at a time and can snap between different expressions at the drop of a hat. It is so wildly expressive that she could have been a silent film star, with those giant round eyes, full cheeks, and a wide, toothy grin. It is a face that most comedians would kill for, and she has never used it to such brilliantly incisive, hilariously sharp effect as she does in Thea Sharrock’s “Wicked Little Letters.”
Inspired by a real historical event from the 1920s, “Wicked Little Letters” takes place in the British seaside town of Littlehampton. In this charming place, everyone knows everyone, and everyone is always on their best Christian behavior. No one is more pious than Miss Edith Swan (Colman), raised by her father, Edward (Timothy Spall), in the strictest fashion. When Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley), a bonny Irish lass with a young daughter (Alisha Weir) and Black boyfriend (Malachi Kirby) in tow, moves in next door, Edith is horrified by the young woman’s lewd behavior – drinking at bars until all hours, letting her floor get dirty, cursing as often as she breathes – and takes it upon herself to teach her new neighbor how to be a Good Christian Woman. Rose is grateful to have a friend, and the two grow somewhat close. But when Edith starts receiving letters attacking her character in the most purple prose she can imagine, she fingers Rose as the likeliest culprit. Woman Police Officer Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan) believes that Rose might be innocent of the charges – why would someone so free with their mouth hide behind the anonymity of a letter? – but she’s hampered by her position in a time when women were still believed to be less than men in all aspects of life. Will she be able to prove Rose’s innocence? And if Rose is innocent, then who is responsible for the letters, which only become more widespread and more vulgar with each passing day?
It’s not really much of a mystery who the letter writer is, but how Jonny Sweet’s delicious screenplay gets us to the reveal is so much fun and executed with such panache by the ensemble cast that it hardly matters. The letters themselves are such a ribald delight to listen to that the audience eagerly anticipates reading the next one. There is something inherently funny about a proper British accent reading such vulgarities as “foxy-ass piss country whore,” and the film gets a lot of mileage out of that humor, despite and also because the letters being read are the actual letters from the historical scandal, which resulted in no less than four trials before court. After the first few, there isn’t much deviation to be found. But they’re still funny anyway, mainly because they fall into their own tropes, and the cast continues to find new ways to spin their line readings to make them feel fresh despite the repeated content.
And what a cast! Vasan makes a big impression as Gladys, the perfect straight woman to the blustering idiot superiors she must deal with (Hugh Skinner’s every moment onscreen is a master class in how to play a bumbling cop). Buckley is a force of nature as Rose, sweeping into every scene like a little hurricane and bending it to her will. Her energy is infectious, but she never lets you forget the sadness at the core of her character, nor the tragedy lying in wait for her and her daughter should she be found guilty of writing the letters. Spall turns from hilarious to scary on a dime as Edith’s domineering father, and Gemma Jones is a perfect match for him as Edith’s mother, the two of them together showing exactly how Edith came to be who she is. But Colman is the star of the show, pulling faces like she’s Jim Carrey in “The Mask” and clearly having a ball skewering Edith’s holier-than-thou persona. Despite her upbringing and reputation as a stick-in-the-mud good person, Edith gets a little twinge of delight that accompanies the horror of hearing the vulgar language of the letters, and when newspapers across the country start picking up the story, she cannot hide her glee at the attention, even as the unflattering pictures and constant references to her as an old spinster apparently hurt. Colman, a master at working with mixed emotions, may have traded in subtlety for obviousness in this performance. Still, when the letters are so attention-grabbingly dirty that the film’s tone is already pretty broad, she merely doubles down on that tone. In doing so, she manages to make Edith understandable and contemptible, a woman deserving of pity and scorn. While it’s great fun to see someone so high on their own supply get brought down a peg, Colman makes it clear that Edith is, in her own way, a victim as well, a person who is not allowed to be her full self because of her family’s and society’s expectations of her.
“Wicked Little Letters” is vicious with its satire of how women were treated in England at this time. It is, in many ways, what the film is really about, underneath all the foxy asses and face-pulling, and it informs nearly every frame. The women of Littlehampton are always looked down on by men, who are all idiots, assholes, or both. The women of Littlehampton don’t get off scot-free, mind you, but their constant gossiping and sniping are presented as a product of their circumstance, needing someone or something beneath them to make themselves feel better. The women are also presented as complex beings capable of holding seemingly contradictory feelings where men cannot – they may be offended by Rose’s behavior. However, they can still see that it doesn’t make sense that she would write the letters, and they notice the change in Edith’s demeanor once she starts gaining the attention that she should spurn as a woman of God, whereas the men only see that Edith is “good” and that Rose is “bad.” A lot is going on beneath the surface here, and the film does itself a bit of a disservice by focusing so much on the comedy. Still, when the film is so good at being a big, broad, crowd-pleasing comedy, it’s hard to get too riled up about the missed opportunity to be more nuanced. “Wicked Little Letters” isn’t subtle at all, but it’s too much fun on every front for that to matter.