Review: In 'Wicked Little Letters,' the shock value feels about a century too late


Women everywhere have many reasons to curse a blue streak. Countless reasons. They don’t need excuses, because sometimes cursing is fun. But if you need a movie to explain this to you, over and over, like a potty-mouthed PSA for speaking one’s mind, the breathless British period comedy “Wicked Little Letters,” starring Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley and directed by Thea Sharrock, is at the ready with its occasionally amusing but ultimately worn-to-the-bone joke.

The film declares up front, “This is more true than you’d think,” and indeed, during the years after World War I, a poison-pen scandal in an English seaside town turned filthy language into national news. Someone’s been sending ornately vicious, profanity-laced, unsigned missives (“foxy-ass old whore” is as nice as this newspaper can print) to the residents of Littlehampton, the brunt of them landing at the doorstep of pious spinster Edith Swan (Colman). While her poor mother (Gemma Jones) weeps and authoritarian father (Timothy Spall) sputters with rage and the police drag their heels, Edith assumes the countenance of brave-faced, sympathy-slurping martyr in a worrisomely godless postwar society.

Of course, everyone knows who the sender must be: Edith’s next-door neighbor (and ex-friend) Rose Gooding (Buckley), a boisterous, barefoot, widowed Irish migrant and single mom who is eventually arrested and put on trial for libel with no evidence save her lower-class status and all-occasions forwardness. (As Rose shrewdly puts it to the authorities, “Do I look like the anonymous type to you?”) The situation doesn’t sit well with police officer Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan), who must defy her chauvinistic colleagues to take matters into her own hands and see that justice is served.

Not that there’s any real mystery to who the epistolary vulgarian is, despite “Wicked Little Letters” presuming there is until about halfway through, when Johnny Sweet’s sketch-thin screenplay turns toward ho-hum caper mechanics to nab the culprit. It’s no spoiler to say hypocrisy is key to the crime, since the film’s cartoonish binary — free-spiritedness good, repression bad — screams it from the beginning. The blessing is that Buckley, Colman, Spall and Vasan are expert enough that dimensional character work still peeks through the vibe of cookie-cutter idiosyncrasy.

Even in a role that’s more like a big Irish wink, Buckley is always watchable, although you half expect her expletive-thick lines to lead right into a bawdy musical number. But it’s Colman’s virtuosity with facial nuances — that is, when the camera holds on her long enough to get them — that hint at the more fascinating, thornier, Jamesian character study to be explored: a self-deluder fractured by misogyny both open and internalized.

It’s all briskly paced, benefiting from suitably evocative sets, costumes and the bit-part bite of Eileen Atkins (as one of Edith’s friends). But Sharrock’s approach is frustratingly compartmentalized, set on keeping the wacky part wacky and the serious part serious. There’s also misplaced trust in the entertainment value of squeezing every ounce of shock from the letters (such language!), while counting on knowing nods about what the key message is (female emancipation!).

Not unlike the genre of naughty village quirk that gave us “Calendar Girls,” “Wicked Little Letters” is benignly enjoyable in its take on a true story of hidden feelings, farcical expression and righteous action. But considering the zesty elements in play, it’s a shame we’re so far removed from the heyday of Britain’s Ealing Studios and its oddball comedies like “Passport to Pimlico,” “Whiskey Galore” and “The Ladykillers,” in which eccentricity, the authenticity of human pluck and spiteful black humor were more smoothly brewed.



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