Film Review of the Week


Wicked Little Letters (15)

Review: “This is more true than you’d think,” teasingly promises director Thea Sharrock’s gloriously foul-mouthed comedy drama, based on a genuine poison pen letter case that scandalised post-First World War Britain and vaunted the sleepy seaside town of Littlehampton onto the front pages of national newspapers. Exhumed from history by award-winning comedian and screenwriter Jonny Sweet, Wicked Little Letters revels in the tightly buttoned attitudes of an era when female police officers were casually disregarded by the old boys’ network and handwriting analysis lacked any scientific credibility in proving a suspect’s innocence.

Sweet’s script doesn’t hold back with the expletives, rifling through a vast lexicon of crude language in less than two hours including one expertly timed c-bomb. Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee would surely endorse this wanton and enthusiastic appropriation of profanities in service of an otherwise cosy and sweet-natured whodunnit. The identity of the potty-mouthed pensmith is evident to any fan of Murder, She Wrote or Scooby-Doo before Sharrock formally unmasks them on screen. However, the devilishness is in the details of interpersonal relationships between strong female characters, embodied with fervour by Jessie Buckley, Olivia Colman and Anjana Vasan. With one notable exception, men are portrayed as bullies, bigots, buffoons or slaves to close-minded patriarchal rule.

God-fearing spinster Edith Swan (Colman) lives in the quiet coastal community with her iron-fisted father Edward (Timothy Spall) and mother Victoria (Gemma Jones), conducting herself in accordance with Christian teachings. Edith befriends her rambunctious next-door neighbour Rose Gooding (Buckley), an Irish single mother who speaks her mind regardless of the consequences. The two women are polar opposites and Edward Swan vehemently opposes his daughter fraternising with a foul-mouthed immigrant, who shares a chaotic home with her young daughter Nancy (Alisha Weir) and new boyfriend Bill (Malachi Kirby).

Following an altercation at Edward’s birthday party, Edith begins to receive hateful handwritten missives full of blush-inducing slurs. The Swans are convinced that Rose is the culprit and Edith reluctantly makes a statement to Constable Papperwick (Hugh Skinner) at the police station. As Rose stands trial, fellow officer Gladys Moss (Vasan) defies her superior, Constable Spedding (Paul Chahidi), to challenge the evidence and expose the real culprit with the help of residents Ann (Joanna Scanlan) and Mabel (Eileen Atkins).

Aside from one well-timed blow to the head with a shovel, Wicked Little Letters inflicts damage with verbal grenades tossed around with visible relish by a fine ensemble cast. Buckley and Colman are spirited sparring partners and Spall exudes menace as a fusty patriarch wielding insidious control over his terrified daughter. Sweet’s script careens like an excitable puppy between hot-button topics including domestic violence, institutional sexism and xenophobia but doesn’t dwell long enough with any issue to dig satisfyingly beneath the surface. Naughty but nice.

Find Wicked Little Letters in the cinemas