WICKED LITTLE LETTERS is Prim, Proper, Profane and Paper-Thin

Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley reunite in this telling of the Littlehampton libels scandal

We’re in an age of connectivity where a friend or colleague is just a click away. Enemies or victims too. The internet affords a veil of anonymity, meaning the rise of cyberbullying and people are more inclined to send a tweet, email, or DM from behind a digital façade. Of course harassment is nothing new, and for a long time snail mail provided the origins of the original poison pen letter. It might take a few days to arrive, but the hurtful remarks still land, even if we view a handwritten letter as something rather quaint these days. Wicked Little Letters is inspired by the Littlehampton libels, a scandal that unfolded in the aftermath of the first World War, when the Royal Mail seemingly became a messenger in a harassment campaign against a pious woman, but the reality was not as straightforward as it seems.

Set in the Sussex region of England, just south of London, the town of Littlehampton is home to spinster Edith (Olivia Colman). Devout in her faith, she lives with her misogynistic dad (Timothy Spall) and overly dramatic mother (Gemma Jones). A standup member of her community and her church, she is currently embroiled in a clash with her neighbor Rose (Jessie Buckley). An Irish immigrant, and single mother, who has no time to waste on varnishing the truth in her words. The pair were friends, and in addition to the tensions between them, there is the small matter of the hate campaign being lodged against Edith through the mail. Hand-written letters filled with expletives and insults that even her father struggles to read aloud. With the ongoing fallout between the pair, and Rose’s sharp tongue being known for miles around, she is painted as the prime suspect and eventually taken into custody. But a young policewoman, Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan), suspects there is something more to this case, and despite the protestations of her boss, decides to do a little investigating of her own.

Director Thea Sharrock (The One and Only Ivan, The Beautiful Game) turns in a capably composed feature, one that makes good use of it’s rather twee surrounds in this cozy hamlet, and the period setting. The aesthetic, production work, and costume design, all add a veil of authenticity and texture, but this veneer conceals an altogether more threadbare affair.

The leading duo, reuniting here after co-starring in The Lost Daughter, do add some compelling moments, most notably a during courtroom scene involving Buckley, but overall they’re just not given enough to work with. The background characters too, are either exaggerated or thinly sketched, even when invested by the talents of notable actors such as Timothy Spall, Joanna Scanlon, Gemma Jones and Eileen Atkins.

The script from comedian Jonny Sweet invests most of its stock in the concept of prim and stuffy Brits reading aloud some crude expletives and insults. As a Brit myself, we’re notably adept at mining a character or situation for comedy, here it’s largely left to “*gasp* you said a swear”. The ‘mystery’ behind the crime is anything but, which might be forgivable if the rest of the film has something to offer, but it doesn’t. Elements of the story do flit with an exploration of misogyny and prejudice, both at home and in the workplace. Several key characters bear the burden of abuse, grief, and discrimination, but again, it’s explored in a largely superficial way.

At first glance, Wicked Little Letters seems like a slam dunk. A real-life scandal, one set in a quaint bygone era in the North of England that should only serve to underscore the humor within the impropriety on show. Add to this two of the most in demand and talented actresses working today in Colman and Buckley. But, despite this foundation, Wicked Little Letters is paper thin, mining little from its premise or cast. An underdeveloped plot, scant character development, and some superficial laughs mean the only letter this film gets is a C.

Wicked Little Letters opens wide on April 5th 

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