The letters trickled in at first, and then they flooded the community. Nearly every resident of Littlehampton, a small coastal town in England, received an offensive note in 1920. Most of the libelous messages haven’t survived, but the ones that did display a dexterity with foul-mouthed language. They are a window into a different time — a rare look, in the words of historian Christopher Hilliard, at the “tangles of devotion and resentment, desire and manipulation” concealed under a working-class neighborhood’s genteel demeanor.
Mystery, tension, gossip and humor defined the Littlehampton scandal, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from Thea Sharrock’s odd screen translation. Wicked Little Letters, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, takes a one-note farcical approach to this slice of history, a peculiar move that deserts its formidable cast and squanders its thrilling premise.
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Two years after The Lost Daughter, Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley reunite as the women at the center of this slanderous mystery. Colman plays Edith Swan, a quiet and repressed eldest daughter who represents a fading feminine respectability politics. (Wicked Little Letters is set in the throes of the suffrage movement.) The actress’ portrayal of a pious woman who still lives with her parents (played by Timothy Spall and Gemma Jones) depends on severe pouts and a stiff posture. Her mannered persona opposes that of Buckley, who plays fast-talking and fiercely independent émigrée Rose.
Rose has recently moved into the house neighboring Edith’s and, initially, the two women strike up a friendship. The single mother from Ireland fascinates Edith, a devout Englishwoman whose grandest excursions are to Sunday service. Here, again, politics matter: Wicked Little Letters takes place on the heels of the Irish War of Independence; the townspeople’s mistrust of Rose goes deeper than her gender.
The relationship between Rose and Edith consists of run-ins and light conversation. Edith tries to evangelize to Rose, convinced she can save the wayward migrant’s soul. But there’s also a hint of fascination, adoration even: Edith could never be as brash, confrontational or vocal as Rose. The quest to save Rose gets tangled in a desire to be her too.
Wicked Little Letters tries to give its scandalous premise a feminist bent by underscoring the difference between the two women. But Jonny Sweet’s screenplay never moves beyond a shallow #girlboss energy, which blunts and tempers the film’s impact. Sweet also attempts to frame the events in Littlehampton as the stuff of dark comedy, but there’s no bite to his one-note telling of the story.
The film opens with Edith receiving another in what’s been a series of letters filled with creative insults. Fed up with the harassment, the Swans file a police complaint. The main officers, a bumbling duo played by Hugh Skinner and Paul Chahidi, vow to arrest Rose, whom they believe to be the culprit. There’s no evidence that Rose is the letter writer, but when Gladys (a delightful Anjana Vasan), the only woman on the force, tries to open a real investigation, she is unceremoniously ignored.
Most of the jokes in Wicked Little Letters revolve around the struggles of women in the workplace, the foul nature of the letters and British people cursing and insulting one another. The comical tone rubs up, often awkwardly, against the more serious themes the film introduces about repression and misogyny. Edith’s relationship with her family becomes a secondary narrative thread that tries, with some success, to shed light on her severity. Her father (Spall) is a tyrant who polices his wife and his daughter’s behavior. There are scenes that could have been harrowing — especially considering the dramatic skills of Spall and Colman — that land instead with an odd thud.
Indeed, Wicked Little Letters swerves between comedy and tragedy without ever hitting its stride. The movie is at its best when it doesn’t strain to turn every moment into a joke, instead letting the story breathe a bit. Colman and Buckley are typically strong, while Vasan delivers her lines in a hilarious deadpan, reminiscent of her work on We Are Lady Parts. But it’s an unflattering reflection on the film that not even this cast can sustain our interest in the dramas of Littlehampton.
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