‘Wicked Little Letters’ and the thrill of being naughty

Olivia Colman (right) and Jessie Buckley in "Wicked Little Letters." (Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)
Olivia Colman (right) and Jessie Buckley in “Wicked Little Letters.” (Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

Within the first few minutes of “Wicked Little Letters,” you might find yourself letting out a shocked laugh at the words that grace your ears – words I do not have the pleasure of being able to type here, as they will surely be censored by my editor. 

“Wicked Little Letters” is based on the true story of a scandal that rocked the small seaside town of Littlehampton just after World War I, where numerous residents received a number of crude letters – and that’s putting things lightly. The letters and their illicit, albeit creative content took the town by storm. To give you an example (if my editor will allow) one letter called its reader an “old beetle” and suggested they liked to, ahem, have intercourse using their nostrils. But while gossip no doubt ran rampant throughout Littlehampton, the truth of the letters came down to the relationship between two women and, or so the movie posits, the thrill one gets from being a little bit naughty. 

That cheeky sort of naughtiness is embedded in the DNA of director Thea Sharrock’s film, a delicious vulgarity that, despite your best efforts, is sure to make you chuckle. The mystery of the letter writer itself is a bit less fun than the film’s overall tone, a bit too easy to see coming. But the film never loses its sense of humor, a wonderfully funny script from Jonny Sweet boosted by a great supporting cast. If nothing else, “Wicked Little Letters” offers you a great opportunity to see the cream of the crop of British talent curse their brains out. 

The two women at the center of this scandal are Edith Swan (Olivia Colman) and Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley). Though the two women couldn’t be more different – Edith is quiet and pious where Rose is boisterous and foul-mouthed – they form an unlikely friendship when Rose moves in next door with her daughter Nancy (Alisha Weir) and live-in boyfriend Bill (Malachi Kirby). 

But after a heated encounter between Rose and Edith’s father Edward (Timothy Spall), whom she still lives with, the friendship abruptly ends, with things becoming more strained after Rose comes to believe that Edith called Child Protective Services on her. When Edith receives the first round of nasty letters, Rose – a single mother, spirited, and Irish (perhaps her worst offense in the eyes of some) – is the likely culprit. 

The mystery, however, isn’t that simple. From the moment we meet Rose, the moment she deadpans to a cop, “Do I look like the anonymous type to you?,” it’s hard to believe that this woman would hide her feelings about anyone behind a pen and paper. Loud-mouthed likability is an arena where Buckley shines. If you’ve seen her in the film “Wild Rose,” you’ll see a lot of that rowdy charm in “Wicked Little Letters,” as she curses like a sailor while shooting off a cheeky grin.

Rose is the perfect foil to the haughty morals of Edith, who Colman somehow imbues with equal parts smarm and pathos. Edith is easy to despise, playing the humble victim as she secretly relishes in the attention the letters are giving her. But while Edith plays up her victimhood in certain areas of her life, she doesn’t have to when it comes to her father. He seems to despise her meek nature, yet refuses to let her leave the house, content to treat her as an overgrown child if only so he has someone to order about. Edith is, in some ways, repulsed by Rose’s brashness, but you can see a little thrill run through her whenever Rose does something uncouth. What must it be like to not care what anyone else thinks? 

I won’t spoil the mystery of “Wicked Little Letters” here, but it should become pretty clear fairly early on in the film, and the cat-and-mouse chase that unfolds isn’t quite as exciting as you might hope. Instead of leaning into the case, the movie lives and dies by its ensemble cast, an eclectic group of actors who deliver the film’s humor with casual brazenness. Sweet’s script gives everyone – from Dame Eileen Atkins to young Alisha Weir – the chance to stand out, and the easy back and forth between all the cast members, along with the film’s small town stakes, lends “Wicked Little Letters” a really comforting quality. Hugh Skinner stands out as Constable Papperwick, the bumbling policeman who first brings Rose in. He works particularly well opposed to Anjana Vasan, who plays PC Gladys Moss, the first and only woman on the force – a fact Papperwick never lets her forget. 

Not only is she the only woman on the force, but Gladys is the only one who suspects Rose might not be the perp from the very beginning. As much as Buckley brings the pluck and Colman the star power, Vasan is really the heart of this quirky British comedy. The comforting quality of “Wicked Little Letters” is wrapped up in her performance, in her quiet determination in the face of workplace sexism, in the way she fights back with a dry humor and straight spine. Her journey through the film, like many of the female characters, hinges on what she learns from Rose’s inability to be anything but herself, damn the consequences. Respectability may be what people want from you, but you won’t get far without a little nerve. 

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