Wicked Little Letters  (15) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Thea Sharrock, UK/France, 2023, 100 mins

Cast:  Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Anjana Vasan

Review by Carol Allen

Wicked Little Letters looks as though it is going to be a very English period comedy.   Set in the 20s in the  English seaside town of Littlehampton, it is based on the true case of one Edith Swan, played in the film by Olivia Colman, who became the recipient of ridiculously obscene poison pen letters.  The assumed culprit was her somewhat riotous and foul mouthed Irish neighbour Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley), who was arrested and charged with the crime.

The police eventually discovered who the true culprit was.  The team included Police Officer Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan), who in the film, in a departure from the reported facts, solves the case with the help of some  other women in the community despite being blocked at every turn by her cloddish male colleagues.

The film has a top class cast.  In addition to the three female leads, Timothy Spall plays the repressed Edith’s bullying father, Gemma Jones is his wispy wife with Joanna Scanlon Eileen Atkins and Lolly Defoe as PC Gladys’s community detectives.  So what went wrong?  Because the film is just not funny and is a bit tedious.

To be fair, the period detail, the locations, sets, props, costumes are all spot on.  But even well-trodden, farcical moments such as someone being caught sitting on the communal outside lavatory, fail to raise a titter, while repeated use of the word “fuck” and people being shocked by it has very limited mileage. The humour in this first time film script by tv writer and comedian Jonny Sweet just does not raise a laugh. 

I also wonder though how much input director Thea Sharrock had into the script, in that it is top heavy with its overstated contemporary message about the extent to which women were undervalued and repressed in the olden days and by implication, still are. When the real letter writing culprit emerges, it is made plain that her epistolatory obscenities are a reaction to the male repression she has suffered.

Timothy Spall,  usually a fine, subtle  actor, is encouraged to go way over the top into a caricature of the heavy father, while his repressed wife almost disappears into the background.  Colman, also a top class actor, get some fun out of her character’s reading out loud of the forbidden naughty words in the letters but falls back too much on her nervous rabbit smile.  Her only real comic moment comes at the very end of the film, when she finally stands up to her father.  Buckley however brings a strong energy and defiance to the unrepressed Rose. 

Then there is the tricky subject of the colour blind casting.  There is evidence now emerging that the English countryside has never been exclusively populated by white people.  However, good though Vasan is in the role of that rare bird of the time, the female police officer – she gives a very lively and expressive performance – it is stretching credibility to the limit in asking us to believe that a woman of colour would be appointed at that time and place.  Malachi Kirby gives a sympathetic performance as Rose’s lover Bill but again it’s difficult to believe that this small minded community, which persecutes Rose for her language, her lifestyle and the illegitimate status of her daughter would stay tactfully silent about her having black, out of wedlock partner.

There must be many interesting and neglected stories which need to be uncovered and told about the history of people of colour in Britain.  It’s an area which has so far only been rarely lightly touched upon, as in the films of Amma Asante, while one of the best known stories crying out for a film is that of Dr Johnson’s protégé Francis Barber, who ended his life as a country schoolmaster.  However twisting social history to clumsily accommodate a contemporary diversity agenda is not the best way to do it.