‘Wicked Little Letters’ Review: Prim, Proper and Profane

by The Technical Blogs


“This is more true than you’d think,” handwritten text informs us at the start of “Wicked Little Letters.” I looked it up, and they weren’t kidding. The movie involves tweaks and elisions to history, of course. But at least in its major outlines, the true story matches the film, in which a dour spinster named Edith Swan (Olivia Colman) and her raucous next-door neighbor Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley) tangle over a series of mysteriously obscene letters that started arriving at the homes of people in the English coast village of Littlehampton in 1920. As you may intuit, this movie belongs to a very particular subgenre summed up in one declaration: boy, small English towns are full of weirdos.

Directed by Thea Sharrock (who has an impressive two movies out this week — the other is “The Beautiful Game”) from a screenplay by the comedy writer Jonny Sweet, “Wicked Little Letters” is a darkly funny take on the tale, leaning a lot more toward the farce than the darkness. Edith, the oldest daughter in a large and very pious family, still lives with her parents (Timothy Spall and Gemma Jones). They sleep in three twin beds in the same room. They rarely go anywhere and are constantly scandalized.

Edith has been under her father’s thumb so long that any will she possessed has been wholly squashed out, which makes her exactly the ideal of feminine virtue for 1920s England. The men have returned from war — those who survived, anyhow — and retaken the jobs and roles women filled, relegating them back to the kitchen and domestic life. Edith, homely but docile, is everything a good Christian Englishwoman should be.

And of course, anyone who deviates from Edith’s type is suspicious. Rose, for instance, has committed a quadruple feat of sin: living with her Black boyfriend (Malachi Kirby), having a daughter (Alisha Weir) who dares the unladylike act of picking up a guitar, enjoying a night at the pub and, most of all, being Irish.

When she arrived in Littlehampton, she was a figure of affable curiosity to her neighbors, especially Edith. But by the time we meet them, Edith has accused Rose of sending elegantly written obscene letters to her and to the neighbors — letters containing marvelously inventive strings of epithets so vile that I cannot reproduce them in this newspaper. Edith endures the letters with a visage so saintly that you can practically see her halo: “We worship a Messiah who suffered, so by my suffering, do I not move closer to heaven?” she intones to her parents, eyes modestly cast down.

We soon learn why Edith says Rose is motivated to write the letters. This is where the movie loses some steam, because early on, it’s obvious that all is not as it seems, something the put-upon local cop Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan) is sure of from the jump. Gladys’s father was a police officer, which is why she became one, though the men she works with lord their maleness over her, putting her down at every opportunity. (She introduces herself to everyone as “Woman Police Officer Moss,” because they’re going to comment on it, anyhow.) Gladys is determined to hunt down the facts, with the help of a few local women who’ve managed to maintain minds of their own.

“Wicked Little Letters” plays like a caper, its mystery worn lightly in what is less of a mystery and more of a lavish consideration of how annoying and stupid the men of Littlehampton (and perhaps, by extension, men in general) were around 1920. Each one is an idiot (save for Rose’s partner, who has dealt with plenty of sleights of his own), made foolish and useless by the kind of misogyny that insists they must be better than women because, well, I mean, women, you know.

The magistrates and clergy and officers of the law all refuse to see what’s right in front of them precisely because they’re blinded by prejudice. They are boorish and boring and bad, and the more weak minded or browbeaten of the women follow right along.

This makes for gently witty comedy, everyone falling into their types easily and pleasantly. (At one point, “DIE SLUT” is splashed in paint across Rose’s door. “It’s German,” she remarks to her daughter, pulling her inside.) The movie is full of goofy side characters and one-liners, yet elevated occasionally to genuine complexity by Colman and Buckley, who are consistently the best thing about any movie they’re in. And, it’s fun to see them together, given Buckley recently played a younger version of Colman in “The Lost Daughter.”

“Wicked Little Letters” would almost be a pretty family-friendly comedy (or at least well suited for more delicate palates) save for one thing: A great deal of its humor comes from the spectacle of watching various upright, uptight, prudish figures spew uninterrupted streams of profanity in inappropriate places: courtrooms, living rooms, the middle of the street. It is pretty funny the first and second and third time. It starts to feel like a crutch after a while.

If that doesn’t bug you, then “Wicked Little Letters” is enjoyable enough, buoyed by its cast, the kind of movie that provokes a few chuckles but won’t stick to your ribs. But I was left pondering a particular characteristic of this kind of period movie. It has a point to make about the plight of women in a patriarchal world, whether they’re seen as angels or trollops; that’s not merely set dressing for the movie, but the text itself. Yet I can’t escape the feeling that we’re meant to laugh at the dull-witted prejudiced people of a hundred years ago, the way they suppress themselves and oppress one another. Aren’t we lucky we’re not like them anymore?

That’s one way to look at it. The truth is more complicated. But perhaps the movie knows it: This is, as we were warned, more true than you’d think.

Wicked Little Letters
Rated R for many, many, many naughty words and one brief bare bum. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. In theaters.


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