Light laughs delivered by Wicked Little Letters

Director: Thea Sharrock Starring: Jessie Buckley, Olivia Colman, Anjana Vasan, Timothy Spall Running Time: 100 minutes

The invention and innovation of Wicked Little Letters is mostly found in its titular titiliating missives. In Jessie Buckley, Olivia Colman and a brightly engaged supporting cast, the foul language and brutal insults of the poison pen letters that start flying through a sleepy British town are delightfully delivered. It’s a dream for actors; playing with language, pitching over the top deliveries, going broad and theatrical with their shock, awe or outrage. All of which makes this a breezy watch, but talents of this calibre can’t help but come across like they’re resting on their wicked little laurels.

Drawing inspiration from a real-life scandal, the story centres on neighbours Edith Swan and Rose Gooding and their growing feud. Formerly the pair were unlikely friends, as repressed and pious Edith (Colman) lives vicariously through the frank free-living of Rose (Buckley), her drinking, swearing and sexual liberation making her decidedly stand out in their quiet post WWI town.

Rose is a wildcard, but an attentive and loving mother to her daughter Nancy (Ireland’s own Alisha Weir), after misunderstandings and disagreements push her and Edith apart, things really take a turn when the spinster starts receiving hate mail, distressing her mother, enraging her strict father (Timothy Spall) and becoming the talk of the town, especially when everyone starts getting them. Rose is assumed guilty by all, but an enterprising woman police officer, very casually dismissed by the men around her (Anjana Vasan) starts gathering local women to uncover the truth and asser themselves accordingly.

On the fringes of this story is one about women stepping out in a changing world. For all of Edith’s passive agressive tuts and judgemental tone, she’s clearly thrilled by Rose’s nature, and the case for Rose’s freedom makes for a clear stand-in for the wider ideals of women’s liberation. Spall’s cold cruelty and the stupid, casual sexism of Vasan’s colleagues makes that clear. It’s a sound needle to thread this story through, but not so elegantly handled. The mystery of the true source of the letters muddies the waters and takes up a lot of screentime for something rather straightforward, all while Buckley is sidelined for a few more minutes than her performance deserves or the audience would like.

The darkness of the comedy and the bigger themes don’t come across as much as they could, as Thea Sharrock’s direction includes flat staging, unadventurous movement and an unflattering ITV sheen that doesn’t stretch the film’s budget much further than its stars. With a game cast, more ambitious hands could have taken this premise further, but Wicked Little Letters still makes for a fun showcase for its leads.

It’s Buckley and Colman particularly that bring this effort together, their charisma coming through. They’re funny, and their characters are clearly created and well matched – if only there was more of the pair directly in conflict or in cahoots during the film’s runtime. The dully crude and unflattering presentation is saved by the delightfully crude and unflattering performances. Though the film doesn’t post through everything it promises, it still provides little gifts in its deliveries.

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

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