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“Wicked Little Letters” Wins with Wit

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 4th, 2024

Wicked Little Letters (Thea Sharrock, 2023) 3 out of 5 stars

“This is more true than you’d think.” So states an opening title card in Wicked Little Letters, the second film in a row out from director Thea Sharrock (on the heels of last week’s The Beautiful Game). Whether that text is more figurative than literal, the truths discussed within the movie are universal. Set in the English town of Littlehampton, along the southern Sussex coast, shortly after World War I, the narrative follows a group of women as they push back against the restrictive rules of the patriarchy. It’s not easy, but they try, and with wit and resolve score important victories.

Sharrock, working off a script by Jonny Sweet, approaches the story with initial dark humor, as we plunge headfirst into the scandal that has Littlehampton all atwitter. Someone has been sending vulgar poison-pen letters to Edith Swan (Olivia Colman, Empire of Light), a middle-aged, unmarried woman living with her deeply religious parents, Edward (Timothy Spall, The Pale Blue Eye) and Victoria (Gemma Jones, Ammonite). In their minds, only one person could be writing the notes: next-door neighbor Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley, Judy), a free spirit from Ireland who is everything that Edith is not, from sexual habits to drinking, swearing and more.

l-r: Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley in WICKED LITTLE LETTERS ©Sony Pictures Classics

At this time and in this place, there is no room for stepping out of line, and the Swans’ accusations land Rose in prison, even though the evidence against her is purely circumstantial. This doesn’t sit so well with “Woman Police Officer Moss” (Anjana Vasan, Mogul Mowgli)—a title that she, first name Gladys, is forced to use at the behest of her male superiors—and so she sets out to investigate the crime (if crime it actually is, since it only involves the delivery of letters, as awful as they may be). Initially alone in her pursuit, Gladys is soon able to gather allies among the other area women, equally fed up with the state of things. This is the era of suffragettes, after all.

With its intense focus on gender politics, Wicked Little Letters makes a purposeful decision to cast across racial lines without ever drawing attention to that fact. Rose has a Black boyfriend, Bill (Malachi Kirby, Small Axe: Mangrove) and there is a Black judge presiding over the trial. Gladys is South Asian. As in Netflix’s popular Bridgerton series, this approach may not be entirely period-accurate, but it’s refreshing to see. What matters here are the sexual battlelines and nothing else.

top-bottom: Joanna Scanlan and Anjana Vasan in WICKED LITTLE LETTERS ©Sony Pictures Classics

The movie bounces back-and-forth between comedy, both ribald and slapstick, and sentimental drama, and it’s the latter scenes that drag the enterprise down. In those moments, Sharrock appears to lose her way, the terrific energy of her ensemble stunted in an apparent effort to remind us of the high stakes. We don’t need this prompt, as it’s built into the setup. It merely kills the vibe.

But when Wicked Little Letters succeeds, it is wicked, indeed, a mischievous takedown of misogyny in all its ugly forms, even if the big plot twist (the reveal of whose pen drips the poison) comes as not that much of a surprise. Buckley, Colman, and Vasan are having a ball and invite the audience to do the same. There is joy in that fun, and even with the parts that don’t work as well, the film is more delight than not. Plus, the end credits claim that is all might have happened. Perhaps that gives us reason to cry as well as laugh.

l-r: Malachi Kirby and Timothy Spall in WICKED LITTLE LETTERS ©Sony Pictures Classics

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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