Wicked Little Letters

When Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley) emigrates from Ireland to the English seaside town of Littlehampton with her daughter Nancy (Alisha Weir), the good-hearted but boisterously foul-mouthed woman with her live-in black lover Bill (Malachi Kirby) is rather scandalous for the 1920’s.  She also happens to move in next door to a misogynistic tyrant, whose straight-laced, middle-aged daughter, Edith Swan (Olivia Colman), nonetheless befriends her.  But while Edith’s father Edward (Timothy Spall) and Chief Constable Spedding (Paul Chahidi) have no evidence, they have no doubt Rose is responsible when Edith begins receiving “Wicked Little Letters.”

Laura's Review: B-

Writer Jonny Sweet uncovered this true story and it has a lot to say about feminism, including the part played by Police Officer Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan), the first female police officer in Sussex, but he makes it all go down easy by giving it a comedic tone.  As directed by Thea Sharrock ("Me Before You," "The One and Only Ivan"), the film plays something like a Miramax film of the 90s or 2000s or a Masterpiece Theater one-off with R-rated language.

The contrast between Rose and Edith is presented right from the get go as a cheerful Rose, clad in a slip, throws her front door open onto the street, deposits a tin washtub outside and goes back in.  Next door on Western Road, a primly dressed middle-aged woman appears, makes a face as she daintily picks a clod of hair out of the tub, throws it into the street, and takes the tub inside.  These are days when neighbors share a bath, an outdoor toilet and just about everything else due to the relatively thin walls connecting their abodes.

We witness the Swann family receiving the 19th in a series of letters, one which horrifies them and which Edith’s mother Victoria (Gemma Jones) believes merits a call to the constable.  The letters are composed of a series of hilariously coarse name calling directed at Edith, and they can hear Rose’s foul language right through their walls (along with her vigorous lovemaking with Bill).

Edith may be middle-aged, but she behaves like a child around her father who demands complete obedience and calls her ‘my little Edith,’ but when he demands she bring him a piece of cake while she is in conversation at his birthday party, Rose speaks up, telling him to fetch it himself.  A scene erupts, Rose violently head butts one of Edward’s equally despicable friends and Edith shows her delight with a secretive smile.  The very next day, though, child services makes an appearance at Rose’s door and not too soon after the police arrive to arrest her for the libelous letters.

As Rose screams curses from within her cell, Gladys questions her boss and Constable Papperwick (Hugh Skinner), both annoying by always preceding her title with ‘female,’ about the evidence, only to learn it is all circumstantial.  She begins to nose around town and, hooking up with Rose’s whist partners Mabel (Eileen Atkins), Kate (Lolly Adefope) and Ann (Joanna Scanlan), sets out to prove Rose’s innocence.  As Rose herself stated, why would she have brought her daughter to start a new life only to endanger it?

This comical subplot is a bit twee, relying on exaggerated character quirk and outsized acting, a tonal imbalance with the rest of the film.  Buckley is fun to watch as the foul-mouthed lover of life, her daughter, and Bill, and Spall is almost chilling as her exact opposite, a mean-spirited oppressor.  Jones balances out the Swann household without actually having any power whatsoever in its dynamic.  Olivia Colman is aces doing meek and bumbling with rebellion peeking through, but we’ve seen this from her before, most recently in “Empire of Light.”

Most should figure out just what’s going on well before the authorities.  “Wicked Little Letters” turns an obscure national scandal into a fun little romp with a thing or two to say about underestimating women.

Robin's Review: B

Sony Pictures Classics releases “Wicked Little Letters” in select theaters on 3/29/24, expanding in subsequent weeks.