Doing the most they can with a script that could’ve been plucked from the rejected bin of ‘90s Miramax feel-good crowd-pleasers, Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley are having the time of their lives in Wicked Little Letters. This 1920-set tale of a town turned upside-down when insulting letters start mysteriously arriving moves in the kind of amiable fashion that ensures no laugh is too daring, no emotional beat too deep, no shot anything but pleasantly lit. While Thea Sharrock’s comedy may be based on a true story, there’s little feeling of authenticity, as if watching a stage play where each performer is tasked with making sure even the nosebleed seats can glean every word.
Living side-by-side but living wildly different lifestyles, Edith Swan (Olivia Colman) is defined by conformity, locked into a rigid, religious routine by her overbearing Edward (a sleepwalking Timothy Spall). Meanwhile, next door is wild Rose (Jessie Buckley), a mother who enjoys going out to the local pub, having sex, and never making excuses for what she enjoys in life. When a pile of insult-laden letters start arriving in Edith’s mailbox––featuring how many “cocks a month” she places in her mouth and devolving from there––a witch hunt begins, the number-one suspect being in plain sight: Rose. Despite Rose being locked-up partially under the supervision of police officer Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan)––who is going through her own misogynistic persecution as the first female officer in her outfit––the widely held public opinion of her clear guilt is too obvious to be true. So begins a mystery for Moss and a group of other women in the Littlehampton community to clear Rose’s name and find the true culprit.
Relying on unexpected vulgarity to spice up a film with aesthetics usually reserved for fluffy British comedies of polite banter, Jonny Sweet’s one-note script has a single trick: throw in a regularly mandated string of expletives so as to ensure audiences are not drifting to sleep. It’s funny the first time, amusing the second, tired the third, and exhausting the fourth––then there’s still 90 minutes to go. While there’s at least one major twist that surprises, the only scant remaining life here is courtesy Colman and Buckley. With their characters initially striking up a friendship before it all crumbles, their combative head-to-head battle entertains for a brief stretch. As the one with more joy to exude as she partakes in life’s pleasures, Buckley steals the show while Colman can feel a little lost, though a few expressions are the kind only this actor can deliver.
For as vulgar as Wicked Little Letters may read on paper, its only true offense is just how depressingly cookie-cutter every beat feels. For attempting to touch on the repressed lives of women in an era when the suffragette movement was blossoming, one isn’t looking for something as solemn as Sarah Gavron’s 2015 film, but Sharrock’s own is too preoccupied with getting cheap, easy laughs for any of the more pertinent themes to land. Add in some vague commentary on the failings of the police system––except the addition of the One Good Cop trope, of course––and the script feels it’s simply, scantily checking boxes of societal commentary. Without an eager festival crowd ready to eat up each punchline, this is the kind of comedy one imagines will only earn a few chuckles when it eventually arrives on a streaming platform.
Wicked Little Letters premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.