20 Mar 2024

Review: Wicked Little Letters

From At The Movies, 7:00 pm on 20 March 2024

Who doesn’t love swearing, the more extreme and baroque the better? That’s the premise of a new, otherwise cosy little English comedy called Wicked Little Letters, starring the sort of people you’d expect to see in such a film. 

If not swearing as much, or as enthusiastically, as they do here.

As dear old Mrs Doyle from Father Ted would say, the language is something fierce.

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Photo: Screenshot

Wicked Little Letters is based on a real-life case, shortly after the First World War.  

Suddenly the town of Littlehampton is besieged by a torrent of abusive – and sweary – letters.  Particularly besieged is a respectable spinster called Edith Swan, played here by Colman.

Her father – Timothy Spall – has no doubt who’s sending the letters.

The Swans’ next door neighbour has the rather inappropriate name Rose Gooding, and by any standards she’s a bit of a terror.  

She drinks, she’s shacked up with a sailor who’s clearly not the father of her daughter.  Rose is played by another lovable screen figure – Irish songbird Jessie Buckley.

In real life, I gather that neither Edith nor Rose were quite as quaintly amusing as Jessie and Olivia are here, but no matter. 

It was a famous case, it happened about the time that women were starting to make their mark – they’d virtually run the country during the war. And it’s got swearing in it. What more do you want?

All it needs now is a convenient villain. No, not Edith, though she’s clearly got “issues”. Nor the unfiltered Rose.   

No, the baddy is the dear old patriarchy, which demonstrates its bullying power and associated uselessness throughout. Particularly when Edith’s awful Dad takes a complaint to the police.

He brushes aside the only woman constable in the village in favour of England’s favorite feckless idiot Hugh Skinner, and his arrogant inspector.  

But WPC Gladys Moss won’t be brushed aside for long. She’s firmly of the opinion that Gooding is being framed.

Unable to pay any kind of bail, Rose is remanded in custody. By this time the nation’s Press has leapt onto the case, and the publicity has all rather gone to Edith’s head.  

It’s obviously a far better story if the evil letter-writer is contrasted with a virtuous and beautiful victim.

But after a while, as news cycles so often do, the pendulum swings when it becomes clear that the evidence against Rose is flimsy at best.  

When she’s released to be tried in court, there’s a flurry of even more extreme letters sent to everyone in the village now.

Despite attempts to add more to the film than just a number of po-faced characters reading obscenities loudly and clearly, Wicked Little Letters trips over the fact that swearing alone isn’t particularly funny.  

And the new elements – Edith is being bullied by her tyrannical dad, Rose being victimised for having the nerve to say what she thinks – are hardly groundbreaking.

There are nice little bits from people who clearly had a free weekend – Joanna Scanlon, Gemma Jones, the great Jason Watkins and Dame Eileen Atkins no less.   

There’s a bit of trendy colour-blind casting to bring the story up to date, though a possibly unintended side-effect of that is to make rural England seem far less racist than it actually was.  

The most depressing thing about Wicked Little Letters is it marks the moment I’m now officially over seeing Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley and Timothy Spall in this sort of movie.

If you must go, take someone along who still gets a naughty frisson at full-on swearing. But for me, to heck with it.

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