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  • Writer's pictureBen Pivoz

Wicked Little Letters


Edith (Olivia Colman) and Rose (Jessie Buckley) clash over some insulting letters in Wicked Little Letters (Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics)

Wicked Little Letters is a British period piece comedy positioned somewhere between farce and sentiment, but definitely closer to the former. That occasional shift in tone is a bit awkward, as is the way the screenplay not so subtly gets us to consider these events through our modern sensibilities. Though that doesn’t ruin the entertainment. Most of all, it is funny, centered on a bizarrely interesting true story and anchored by predictably strong performances from two of the best actresses working today. While it doesn’t have anything particularly fresh to say about the role of women in Post-World War I England, or the tangled conflict between repression and faith, it says it with intelligence and wit. This is a pretty pleasurable experience.


It is the early 1920s. Edith and Rose are next door neighbors in a small town. Edith is a “good Christian woman” who lives with her parents and is proud of her piety. Rose, having recently moved there from Scotland after her husband’s death in the war, lives with her boyfriend and daughter. She is rowdy, vulgar, and doesn’t care who she offends. When Edith is the victim of a series of insulting letters from an anonymous author, Rose becomes the prime suspect.


Wicked Little Letters (95 minutes, without the end credits) isn’t necessarily focused on mystery. It is about the differences between these women and their relationships with society. That includes not just Edith and Rose, but also Gladys, a female police officer intrigued by the case. She is treated like a sideshow attraction in town, a “what’ll they think of next” gag. Despite the mockery, she takes her job very seriously and is quickly convinced that Rose is innocent. Her boss refuses to listen. Edith goes to church, quotes the bible constantly and is devoted to her parents. Rose swears in public (using language sort of similar to that used in the letters), lives in sin and isn’t ashamed of herself. If Edith says it’s Rose, then it must be. Besides, Gladys isn’t a real police officer; she’s a woman!

Woman Police Officer Gladys Moss (ANjana Vasan) is on the case

Opinion of the time was that women should be quiet, religious, homemakers. That is Edith. Rose and Gladys, respectful as she tries to be, threaten men by challenging their power. Rose by gleefully speaking her mind and Gladys by passionately pursuing men’s work. A lot of the humor comes from the ignorance of the men as their arrogance and stupidity is punctured by these women. Quietly, by example, in Gladys’ case. In public for everyone to see in Rose’s. Meanwhile, there’s Edith, watching it all, barely concealing her discomfort.


The screenplay by Jonny Sweet does contain a lot of laughs and a whodunit, yet the most compelling aspect of it comes from how these women see each other. Surprisingly, Edith and Rose were friends. As dissimilar as they are, they saw something to admire in one another. Then, a couple of incidents, not to mention the ever-present disapproval of Edith’s father, pushed them apart; hence the suspicion surrounding Rose. Their issue seems to come from the situation they find themselves in, not from a personal dislike. As far as Gladys goes, she doesn’t have to like them (and she doesn’t); her duty is to help.


Olivia Colman is great as Edith. She behaves the way she has been taught a woman is expected to, but Colman makes sure we see the frustration (and anger?) simmering beneath the surface. The always wonderful Jessie Buckley is a bundle of energy as Rose. She sees no point in keeping her feelings to herself. If people are being stupid, just tell them! Anjana Vasan is also good as essentially the straight-woman to the wackiness as Officer Gladys. She puts up with a lot and is clearly the smartest person in the room the majority of the time.


These three characters are mixed well by director Thea Sharrock. Wicked Little Letters opens by informing its audience that “This story is more true than you might think.” That sense of an embellished yarn permeates the production, making for a really amusing time at the movies.

 

3½ out of 5

 

Cast:

Olivia Colman as Edith Swan

Jessie Buckley as Rose Gooding

Anjana Vasan as Police Officer Gladys Moss

Timothy Spall as Edward Swan

Gemma Jones as Victoria Swan

Alisha Weir as Nancy Gooding

 

Directed by Thea Sharrock

Written by Jonny Sweet

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