Prim, Proper, and Profane: A Review of “Wicked Little Letters”

Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley bring a strange true story of defamation and foul language to life in this comedy.

“Wicked Little Letters” opens with a handwritten phrase that says, “This is more true than you’d think.” They weren’t joking, according to my research. Of course, the film makes changes and omissions to history. However, the film and the true story are identical, at least in broad strokes. The film centres on a row of mysteriously lewd letters that began showing up at the homes of people in the English coastal village of Littlehampton in 1920, and centres on the tangle between a stoic spinster named Edith Swan (Olivia Colman) and her boisterous next-door neighbour Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley). This film, as one might assume, is part of a very specific subgenre that can be summed up in one sentence: boy, small English villages are full of weirdos.

Prim, Proper, and Profane: A Review of "Wicked Little Letters"
Prim, Proper, and Profane: A Review of “Wicked Little Letters”

“Wicked Little Letters” is a darkly humorous adaptation of the story that errs much more on the side of farce than darkness. It is directed by Thea Sharrock (who is also the director of the outstanding two films that are out this week; the other is “The Beautiful Game”). Living with her parents, Timothy Spall and Gemma Jones, Edith is the eldest daughter of a large and deeply religious household. They share a room with three twin beds. They are continuously in the news and seldom travel anyplace.

Edith is the epitome of feminine virtue in 1920s England because she has been completely subjugated by her father for so long that any will she may have had has been crushed. After the war, the men (the ones who made it out alive, anyway) took over the responsibilities and jobs that women had held, confining them to the home and kitchen. Homely yet submissive, Edith is all that an English woman of faith ought to be.

Of course, people who don’t fit Edith’s type are suspicious. Taking Rose as an example, she has done four sins in one go: living with her Black boyfriend, Malachi Kirby; having a daughter, Alisha Weir, who dared to pick up a guitar; going out to the pub; and, most importantly, being Irish.

Upon her arrival in Littlehampton, she piqued the friendly curiosity of her neighbours, particularly Edith. By the time we meet them, though, Edith has accused Rose of writing tastefully vulgar letters to her and the neighbours. The letters contain horrible and wonderfully imaginative chains of profanities that are too creative to print in this newspaper. With an almost halo-like face, Edith bears the letters with such saintliness that she even says to her parents, “We worship a Messiah who suffered, so by my suffering, do I not move closer to heaven?” with her eyes lowered.

We quickly discover Rose’s motivation for penning the letters, as claimed by Edith. Here’s where the film starts to lose pace because, as the stoic local police officer Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan) quickly discovers, not everything is as it seems. Gladys followed in her father’s footsteps and became a police officer, but the guys she works with abuse their masculinity and put her down whenever they can. (She addresses everyone as “Woman Police Officer Moss” since, well, they’re going to make comments about it.) With a few local ladies who have managed to keep their minds intact, Gladys is determined to find out the truth.

“Wicked Little Letters” is a play that resembles a caper, with its mystery worn lightly to reveal more of a lavish analysis of how foolish and unpleasant the men of Littlehampton—and maybe men in general—were in the year 1920. Because of the misogyny that maintains males must be superior to women because, well, women, you know, all of them are idiots (well, except for Rose’s partner, who has had his fair share of slights).

Because they are prejudice-blind, the magistrates, clergy, and law enforcement officials all fail to recognise what is clearly in front of them. The more easily swayed or feeble-minded women follow suit because they are rude, dull, and nasty.

Everyone fits into their kinds with ease and pleasure, making for mildly humorous comedy. (At one point, Rose’s door is painted with the words “DIE SLUT.” She pulls her daughter inside and says, “It’s German.” Colman and Buckley, who are always the highlights of any film they are in, occasionally lift the film’s ridiculous supporting cast and one-liners to a genuine level of complexity. Seeing them together is also entertaining because Buckley previously portrayed a younger Colman in “The Lost Daughter.”

Apart from one minor detail, “Wicked Little Letters” could pass for a family comedy, or at least be appropriate for those with more sensitive tastes. A significant portion of its amusement stems from witnessing different dignified, formal, and devout individuals blurt forth unending streams of vulgar words in unsuitable settings such as living rooms, courtrooms, and public spaces. On the first, second, and third occasions, it is quite humorous. After some time, it becomes tiresome.

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