WICKED LITTLE LETTERS Review: A Foxy-a••ed Clever Eruption of Suppressed Rage

Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley Star in a Period Comedy of Creative Cussing

Editor, Canada; Montréal, Canada (@bonnequin)
WICKED LITTLE LETTERS Review: A Foxy-a••ed Clever Eruption of Suppressed Rage

I'm sure that I'm not the only one who has written - either in their head or possibly on virtual or real paper - a letter that they never sent; the kind of letter that lets out all the anger we have for a person that mostly consists of just calling them horrible terms. Often sexual or regarding bodily functions - it might not be sophisticated, but sometimes we just want to swear at the top of our proverbial lungs at people who deserve it. Or maybe they don't and we just want to be assholes.

While in today's world of online comments and social media, means that many people (particularly women, queer people, those who are racially marginalized) receive horrible and threatening correspondance all the time, the contemporary scribes of such missives are hardly original. Poison pen letters have a long history, though perhaps not as much in volume, as the creativity of their work.

One such story, a relatively unknown piece of somewhat colourful local history, gets a delightful humourous and deceptively political feature film treatment in Wicked Little Letters. Helmed by theatre and film director Thea Sharrock (The Beautiful Game), with a script by Jonny Sweet, a scandal that rocked the nation (if only briefly) makes for an excellent actor's film that takes a little sidestep from the normal period film.

Edith (Olivia Colman) leads a somewhat small life in her seaside town. Middle-aged, the only child left living with her elderly parents Edward and Victoria (Timothy Spall, Gemma Jones), her life revolves around church and the Woman's Whist group. But her new Irish neighbour Rose (Jessie Buckley), seems to bring some welcome upheavel to this - speaking her mind as she likes, frequenting the local pub, while trying to rasie her daughter Nancy after the loss of her husband in WWI.

Except someone has been sending some rather nasty letters to Edith - so-called poison pen letters, filled with rudeness that, to someone like Edith (and granted, manty people), might make a person faint. Edward is convinced they're written by Rose, and since this is the 1920s and very much a man's world, his word is enough to have Rose arrested. But Woman Police Constable (yes, they had to call themselves that) Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan) is quite certain it's not Rose, and seeks to find the real culprit.

This is less about the mystery of who wrote the letters — it's not hard to guess, so it's smart to reveal the answer midway through the film — than about the overlapping worlds that Rose, Edith, and Gladys occupy. Rose is personally emancipated (she takes no shit from anyone and speaks her mind, therefore she must be a trollop and a criminal); Gladys is one of the first women in her chosen occupation, and no one takes her seriously. Edith is in one way the most powerful, since she conforms to societal expectation of being a good christian and a dutiful daughter.

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But as is showcased quickly, Edith's power is small, and comes at a price: her father has complete control over her movements; and any time Edith's personal light begins to shine, whether it be someone who fancies her, or her talent or intelligence being recognized, he either overtly or covertly puts her back in his preferred place.

The language is key - not just the language of the letters, but how the characters speak to each other. Words do hurt, lies can come back to haunt you, and a loving encouragement can make all the difference. Women's language is even more scrutinized, while men can get away with proverbial murder as they are never in danger of being silenced.

But as Sweet's script focuses on, and Sharrock and her cast display, all that repression will lead to rage, and cunning, and taking matters into their own hands. If the women don't help each other, then they will be lost. The MVP trio of Joanna Scanlan, Eileen Atkins, and Lolly Adefope are not only there for clever retorts and comic relief, but to show all manner of women just trying to exist as themselves, in a world constantly wanting them to conform.

Colman has a long and strong history in comedy, and not always the 'proper' kind (see her brilliant supporting turn in Hot Fuzz); her subtle work here is just as effective as when her Edith lets loose in language - a woman still so wanting to be free, and finding that repression means she hurts others. Buckley also finds a deeper meaning to a character that in other hands might have been more of a stock caricature of the obnoxious neighbour.

Combining some rather crude and creative language, women who are made to be opposed by the society that wants to keep them down, and an amusing caper to solve, with terrific performances, and Wicked Little Letters manages to find more depth and nuance that the average British period comedy

Wicked Little Letters opens on April 5th in the USA and Canada.

Wicked Little Letters

  • Thea Sharrock
  • Jonny Sweet
  • Olivia Colman
  • Jessie Buckley
  • Timothy Spall
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Thea SharrockJonny SweetOlivia ColmanJessie BuckleyTimothy SpallComedyCrimeDrama

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