Wicked Little Letters (2024, dir. Thea Sharrock)

by | Feb 23, 2024

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 100 mins

UK Distributor: Studiocanal

UK Release Date: 23 February 2024

WHO’S IN WICKED LITTLE LETTERS?

Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Anjana Vasan, Joanna Scanlan, Gemma Jones, Malachi Kirby, Lolly Adefope, Eileen Atkins, Timothy Spall, Alisha Weir, Hugh Skinner, Richard Goulding, Jason Watkins, Krishni Patel

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Thea Sharrock (director), Jonny Sweet (writer), Graham Broadbent, Olivia Colman, Peter Czernin, Ed Sinclair and Jo Wallett (producers), Isobel Waller-Bridge (composer), Ben Davis (cinematographer), Melanie Oliver (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In 1920s Littlehampton, a series of vulgar letters rock the community…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON WICKED LITTLE LETTERS?

Trolling can be an artform, whether it’s to mock and annoy unpopular public figures or to spread influence for a just cause. However, the most common form continues to be the negative type, one that will say just the most unimaginatively vulgar things about anyone or anything just because they somehow don’t fit their limited worldview – or, more likely, they’re just sad, lonely individuals who get a quick thrill from leaving horrible comments about others to fill a void in their otherwise empty lives.

It’s hard to know when exactly the act of trolling truly began, but director Thea Sharrock’s Wicked Little Letters puts forth the intriguing notion that the world’s first troll might have been someone living in, of all places, the English village of Littlehampton in the 1920s. Such a concept is explored in this refreshingly potty-mouthed, if ultimately light-hearted, historical comedy that takes a few interesting swipes at conservative British society along the way.

Based on a story that is, according to an opening title card, “more true than you might think”, the film is set in the town during the post-war years, where the reserved, God-fearing Edith Swan (Olivia Colman) – who lives with her very controlling father Edward (Timothy Spall) – is neighbours with Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley), a recent Irish immigrant who is much more liberated and free-spirited than Edith could ever imagine herself to be. The two of them were once friends, but a snafu involving Rose’s daughter Nancy (Alisha Weir) drove them apart, and after Edith begins receiving a series of vulgar, foul-mouthed letters in the mail, she is quick to blame her rowdy neighbour who has a blue vocabulary to match what’s in the letters. However, after Rose is arrested and charged with the crime, police officer Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan) – who herself has to deal with frequent jabs and harassment by her male colleagues – suspects that Rose might actually be innocent, and so she sets out to find the real culprit before their so-called wicked little letters, which eventually circulate throughout the town, begin throwing everything out of control.

The film, as written by comedian Jonny Sweet under Sharrock’s direction, has an aesthetic you’d normally expect to find in a classic Ealing Studios comedy, from the quaint early 20th-century English village to characters with simplistic traits and even more straightforward dialogue. Of course, it’s when people start swearing like sailors that the illusion of pleasance is shattered, but even then, the tone ultimately remains gentle and somewhat inoffensive, like a film that is aimed more towards a more middle-aged crowd (albeit one that can stomach some frequent strong language). It is a slightly odd direction to take, given the further-reaching comedic potential of hearing proper English civilians use language bluer than the sea surrounding Littlehampton – imagine an episode of The Archers as directed by Quentin Tarantino – as well as a number of supporting performances that are clearly leaning into outlandishly farcical territory, but Sharrock does find ways to make her gentler approach work well enough for audiences who want to laugh at some amusing swear words every now and then.

On that note, it is important to declare that Wicked Little Letters is not as outwardly comedic as the trailers may have you believe. Beyond the fact that Sweet’s script isn’t exactly a laugh-a-minute type of narrative (honestly, the swearing itself does most of the heavy lifting in that department, as does the ever-delightful presence of Olivia Colman), Sharrock keeps the story from slipping too haphazardly into farce, with long stretches where the drama takes full precedence, particularly how the accusations against Jessie Buckley’s Rose threaten to disrupt her life for good. Furthermore, the film isn’t afraid to get pretty harrowing at times, from scenes set in prison to some terrifying moments where the ferocity of Timothy Spall’s character comes out in full force, to even a death scene that is more shocking when put into a particular context. Admittedly, moments like these can create a sense of confusion surrounding the overall tone, which may subtract from the overall enjoyment one might expect to have going in.

However, it’s in these moments where the film also displays its brightest qualities, as they pave the way for some biting social commentary about patriarchal norms, and the consequences of being so reserved that the only outlet one has left is utter societal disruption. Case in point, the identity of the letter-writer is revealed about halfway through the film, and it presents a truly interesting parallel to today’s psychology behind the common internet troll, especially at a time when certain civilians were fully expected to be seen and not heard, even when they held reasonable positions of power. Whether or not their identity comes as a true surprise is ultimately down to the viewer, but the reveal does make a number of dynamics more engaging than had it been saved for much later on, and it manages to keep the narrative and a certain sect of characters from becoming too one-note.

In some ways, there are plenty of avenues where I personally feel that Wicked Little Letters could have taken some time to better flesh out, to where it might have worked as a Martin McDonagh-esque dark comedy about fractured neighbourly relationships and the damaging effects of strict patriarchal control. However, for what it is, the film works fine enough, with some light giggles coming from all the schoolground language being thrown about by a number of stuffy British types, and of course there are some top-notch lead performances by the reliable likes of Colman and Buckley to keep things at bay.

As for its depiction of possibly the world’s first instance of pure trolling, which 100 years later would become more commonplace but somehow less refined, it can’t help but feeling a bit too tame for its own good.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Wicked Little Letters is an amusing but tame historical comedy about an early form of common trolling, which tackles some interesting themes amidst a wobbly and ultimately inoffensive tone, barring the foul language that carries much of the light comedy, as do some bright performances by Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley.

Three out of five stars

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