20 June 2024
jessie buckley and Olivia Coleman in Wicked Little Letters, read Freda Cooper's review

Film Review – Wicked Little Letters (2023)

In the days not-so-long before social media, trolling took a different form. Anonymous letters. Or, to use their more descriptive name, poison pen letters. And in Thea Sharrock’s Wicked Little Letters, their startling consequences for a small seaside town find themselves in a film with the classic Ealing comedies in its sights.

In the 1920s, what became known as the Littlehampton Letters hit the headlines. Residents of the quiet seaside town were receiving anonymous letters full of scandalous insults and one woman in particular, the pious Edith Swan (Olivia Colman), was the author’s favourite target for abuse. As the letters dropped through more letterboxes, her fractious relationship with her extrovert next door neighbour, Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley), meant that fingers of suspicion pointed directly at the single mum whose raucous behaviour had always raised eyebrows. While the police were convinced she was the culprit, some of the town’s womenfolk had other ideas and set out to uncover the person responsible for the malicious missives.

The film’s immediate appeal comes from the Colman/Buckley double act. Aside from their considerable acting talents, they’re almost equally famous for their ripe sense of humour and they are both joys to watch, clearly relishing every moment. But let’s not ignore that much of the cast reads like a who’s who of vintage British acting: Timothy Spall, Eileen Atkins, Gemma Jones, Joanna Scanlan. And “British” is the key word here, because this is a film which constantly looks over its shoulder at the comedic gems from the Ealing Studios. A small community under the spotlight, eccentric characters, social commentary, a crime to be solved, all tinged with darkness – the hallmarks of what became a sub-genre in its own right. It’s underlined by a string quartet soundtrack which harks back to the gentility of the music from The Ladykillers. Yet it’s the language of the letters that’s perhaps the real star. F and C bombs abound, alongside bizarrely inventive and eccentric insults which are the main source of the film’s humour. And many of them come from the real letters themselves.

In truth, it’s not quite as funny as it could have been, despite the performances and the florid turns of phrase. And that’s because the film plays it just a wee bit too safe: it seems afraid to really let rip, treating a male patriarchy sub-plot with kid gloves, and ends up feeling just as genteel as its small town setting. While it’s playful and cheeky at times, the comedy doesn’t have enough bite to raise much more than a smile or a giggle. Real laugh-out-loud moments are in short supply and the fact that the identity of the culprit is glaringly obvious right from the outset means the film has to work extra hard to keep our attention.

For all the talent involved and its cinematic heritage, Wicked Little Letters narrowly but constantly misses its aim – unlike the owner of the poison pen. Its language may be fruity, yet the overall tone is undeniably quaint.

★★★

In UK cinemas February 23rd / Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Timothy Spall, Anjana Vasan, Malachi Kirby, Joanna Scanlan, Gemma Jones, Eileen Atkins / Dir: Thea Sharrock / StudioCanal / 15

Watch our interview with director Thea Sharrock and writer Jonny Sweet.


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