TORONTO, Canada—Wicked Little Letters belongs to that subgenre of twee European dramedies—think The Full Monty, Calendar Girls, Kinky Boots, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and its ilk—in which accomplished actors star as peculiar characters in stories defined by unexpectedly mature and/or eccentric twists. In the case of Thea Sharrock’s based-on-a-true-story film (which premiered Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival), quirkiness comes in the form of profane X-rated missives that arrive via the postal service at the home of a devout local woman, thereby instigating an inquiry, accusations, and legal action. It’s a cursefest most cute, designed to make older audiences giggle with astonished glee at naughty words and hostile rivalries, and were it not for the participation of Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley, it would be an insufferable groaner rather than merely an inoffensive one.
In the quaint British seaside town of Littlehampton in the post-WWI 1920s, Edith Swan (Colman) upholds the highest moral standards at the behest of her parents Edward (Timothy Spall) and Victoria (Gemma Jones), with whom she has always resided. With flat hair that’s parted on the side and slightly wavy as it extends toward her ears, Edith is a pious Christian whose greatest fear is succumbing to pride regarding her staunch faith, although hers is not a happy household. For one, her father is a stern taskmaster who sees his daughter as a perpetual subservient child obliged to be at his beck and call. Of more immediate concern, however, are the communiques that arrive with alarming regularity and contain slander whose ugliness is only matched by its weirdness. Slamming Edith as “you funny ass old whore,” “tricky old fuck” and “sad stinky bitch” (to cite just three of innumerable insults), the dispatches are an exercise in uninhibited foul-mouthed fury.
Who could be sending such memos? All fingers point toward Edith’s next-door neighbor Rose Gooding (Buckley), and with significant reason. Living in her flat with her rambunctious guitar-loving daughter (Amy Lee Ronaldson) and her Black boyfriend (Malachi Kirby), who is not the girl’s father, Rose is a wild child with a secret past and a mouth to make a sailor blush, spewing an unending torrent of expletives whether she’s at home, in the street or at the pub downing pints with rowdy boozehounds. As a single mother and Irish immigrant who refuses to kowtow to normal standards of decorum, she’s an outlier who’s looked down upon by the area’s traditionalists, chief among them Edward, whose every glance in Rose’s direction seems intended to cause her to drop dead on the spot.
Everyone suspects Rose of sending the letters, including Edith, despite the fact that the two were once quite close. Picking up mid-story and then flashing back to fill in the gaps, Wicked Little Letters turns out to be the tale of former friends torn apart by unkind allegations. While the two don’t appear to be alike, Edith took Rose under her wing upon the immigrant’s initial arrival in town, and she was swiftly captivated by the transplant’s gung-ho insolence. So too were Edith’s motley crew of friends, all of whom eventually provide comedic relief of a very mildly wacky sort. Nonetheless, the good times were not to last, first at Edward’s birthday party (where Rose refused to sit idly by and let old men behave like sexist brutes) and, afterwards, because of a visit to Rose’s domicile by child protective services that she believed was Edith’s doing.
The day following that inquiry, Edith begins receiving “poison pen” letters, and scandal follows, even making it into the newspapers, where the lonely and put-upon woman is touted for nobly standing up for good, decent Christian values, and causing her to not-so-subtly beam with vanity. With women’s suffrage also making headlines, Edith is viewed as a bulwark against dangerous progress by some, and especially by her dad, whom Spall plays as a domineering bully with a deep underlying fear of being humiliated and emasculated. Rose, on the other hand, is all brash modern attitude, proudly refusing to adhere to convention and unwilling to bend when the authorities charge her with libel and throw her in jail, jeopardizing her parental custody.
Regardless of the explicit language uttered throughout, Wicked Little Letters is a decidedly inoffensive affair, whether it’s focusing on Edith and Rose’s rivalry or on Indian “woman police officer” Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan), who yearns to do actual law enforcement work but is routinely treated like a second-class cop by her dim-witted colleague and chauvinistic chief. In terms of the film’s feminist spectrum, Gladys is positioned almost exactly between oppressed Edith and rebellious Rose, determined to slyly disobey orders and get to the bottom of this mystery—which it is, since the available evidence suggests that Rose is innocent—and yet not so rash that she completely jeopardizes her career.
Wicked Little Letters is playfully zany if never actually funny, undone by a Jonny Sweet script that simply relies on dirty words for laughs and Sharrock direction that renders the characters, setting and scenario cartoonish. Colman and Buckley are suitably broad and boisterous, leaning into exaggerated expressions and body language to telegraph everything from a county away, and their energetic performances are capable and likable. Neither, however, can compensate for a paper-thin plot without much in the way of surprise or humor; by the time a superfluous fart joke materializes, the desperation is just about palpable.
Considering that it boasts only a handful of characters, few of whom are actual suspects, Wicked Little Letters doesn’t work as a whodunit, and its celebration of unruly feminism in the face of stuffy male religious authoritarianism is as uncomplicated and hokey as the rest of the proceedings. Sharrock’s portrait of intolerance (against women and foreigners) is easy-bake palatable, and it’s embellished with a handful of anachronisms that underscore its lack of seriousness. As two women pitted against each other rather than the tyrannical guys who are their actual enemies, Colman and Buckley do their damndest to make the film charming. In the end, though, they only succeed in making it airline-viewing amiable.
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