Wicked Little Letters
Photograph: Studiocanal
  • Film
  • Recommended


Wicked Little Letters

3 out of 5 stars

Two beloved character actors face off in a sweary but cosy period comedy

Helen O’Hara

Time Out says

There’s a mild sense of subversion from the opening seconds of Thea Sharrock’s (Me Before You) new film, as the usual cosy British movie score – you know, the one with the gently tinkling piano keys – is undercut by a steel guitar more reminiscent of a western showdown at high noon. What’s fun is that both feel appropriate to this odd comedy, based on a true story. Here the duellers here are Olivia Colman’s pious middle-aged spinster and an uninhibited Irish single mother played by Jessie Buckley. Their weapons of choice? The kind of bad language that would have your granny reeling.

Incredibly, it’s based on the true story from 1920s Littlehampton, a chocolate box of an English seaside town. Colman’s upstanding Edith Swan started to receive grotesquely worded and flagrantly libellous letters, scandalising the whole town, and everyone leapt to blame her potty-mouthed, no-better-than-she-should-be neighbour Rose Gooding (Buckley). The police prosecuted Rose for criminal libel but some, notably pioneering Police Officer Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan), began to suspect that they’d fingered the wrong woman. As it were.

Cue a battle of wits, wills and nosiness, as some of Rose’s friends sleuth to find the real culprit and Edith eats up her moment in the sun. Her inappropriate relish is rendered a little more sympathetic as we learn about her domineering father (Timothy Spall, on monstrous form). Even so, it’s far, far easier to root for the straightforward, outspoken Rose.

Sharrock has a lot of fun with the film’s floods of bad language (‘foxy-ass old whore’ is the least of it), playing with our expectations of the usual British period piece featuring this sort of accomplished cast: Gemma Jones, Eileen Atkins, Lolly Adefope, Joanna Scanlan, Jason Watkins and Hugh Skinner also appear. But Jonny Sweet’s script, while very funny and pacy, touches on loads of issues without ever finding a focus. There are pot shots at institutional sexism, anti-Irish sentiment, domestic abuse and poor policing, but it’s all a bit amorphous. The laughs keep coming, but it’s lacking sharpness.

What is delightful, however, is seeing Colman and Buckley together. They co-starred in The Lost Daughter but, since they played the same part in different time periods, never shared the screen. Here they get along like a house on fire – in the sense that they’re clearly having a ball, and that they cause a lot of running and screaming and damage. The two gifted comedic actresses give their characters depth while also finding moments of lightness that stop the drama from ever bringing the pace down too much. It makes for a wickedly funny spin on the safe old British period drama.

In UK cinemas Feb 23. In US theaters Mar 29.

Cast and crew

  • Director:Thea Sharrock
  • Screenwriter:Jonny Sweet
  • Cast:
    • Jessie Buckley
    • Olivia Colman
    • Gemma Jones
    • Timothy Spall
    • Lolly Adefope
    • Joanna Scanlan
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