‘Wicked Little Letters’ // Film4 and StudioCanal

‘Wicked Little Letters’ was brazen.

Words have power. They can provide comfort, education, information. They can also cause injury. Words, when used with malice or contempt, can cause a ricochet of questions, accusations, and insults. Words such as these can also be, in perhaps the darkest shades of humour, comical. It is this type of language that is the focal point of Thea Sharrock’s latest black comedy film, ‘Wicked Little Letters’.

Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2023, ‘Wicked Little Letters’ is Sharrock’s third theatrical feature credit after 2016’s ‘Me Before You’ and 2020’s ‘The One and Only Ivan’ (for which she also served as executive producer). Originating from the realm of theatre, Sharrock, then aged 24, became the youngest artistic director of London’s Southwark Playhouse in 2001. Her history in theatre directing has aided her to transition to onscreen direction through her framing of close-knit interpersonal relationships and dialogue-heavy narratives. Her experience therefore lends itself well to a film such as ‘Wicked Little Letters’, feeling in many ways like a play in cinematic form.

The film stars a stellar ensemble cast of British and Irish actors including the likes of Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Anjana Vasan, Timothy Spall, Gemma Jones, Joanna Scanlan, Eileen Atkins, Lolly Adefope, Alisha Weir, and Malachi Kirby. Based upon the real-life scandal that shocked the seaside village of Littlehampton, Sussex in the early 1920s, ‘Wicked Little Letters’ sheds light on the stark contrasts of human nature and etiquette when self- and public-reputation is in question. When a series of vulgar and vitriolic letters is sent to the mild-mannered Edith Swan (Colman), suspicion immediately falls upon her foul-mouthed neighbour Rose Gooding (Buckley). However, as Gooding’s trial nears, a group of resourceful women believing her innocence, led by the under-appreciated ‘Woman Police Officer’ Gladys Moss (Vasan), aim to uncover the true culprit.

What makes ‘Wicked Little Letters’ such an intriguing film is its factual absurdity. The ‘poison pen’ scandal is an obscure scandal not well known outside of Sussex. While it is considered a tale of early 20th century infamy in the English county, for the rest of the world it is relatively unknown. Basing ‘Wicked Little Letters’ on a real life incident affords the film an extra layer of intrigue. It provides a platform for Sharrock to play around with, blending realism with the comically surreal.

However, the juxtapositioning of these elements does create a film that is both amusing and frustrating. Sharrock chooses to keep the story’s authenticity intact through its presentation of era-relevant setting, costuming, and (of course) language. Majority of the film is shot on location in the seaside towns of Arundel and Worthing – a stone’s throw away from Littlehampton. Exterior shots of cobblestone streets and colourful wooden doors tucked within stone walls provide the film with an essence of early 20th century British seaside living. The atmosphere it conveys is charming yet suffocating. You are never quite sure if you can trust your neighbours with your deepest secrets or not.

One of the film’s biggest strengths is its gorgeous cinematography. Ben Davis, whose credits include ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, and ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’, shoots ‘Wicked Little Letters’ with a soft hue reminiscent of post-war nostalgia. While not muted, the relatively simple colour palette of the scenery allows for the characters’ burst of colours to really pop. Davis mixes this with smooth, gliding camera transitions to provide the film with genuinely good comedic timing. Two of the strongest examples occur in the framing of Rose Gooding’s house. In the first, the camera pans from one room to the adjacent other in one tracking shot. The second highlights profane graffiti on Gooding’s door before cutting to her unimpressively stating that “it’s German”. Davis understands the importance of film being a visual medium, showcasing his knack for delivering punchlines through timed framing.

Merging history with dark comedy is not the easiest of feats. ‘Wicked Little Letters’ is comedian Jonny Sweet’s first theatrical screenplay. Sweet turned his attention to the big screen after lending his writing skills to several British television comedy series during the past decade. Sweet’s screenplay emphasises that he is a comedian at heart. Sweet skilfully combines historical fact with humour with deliciously mischievous ease. Borrowing language from the time, swears and all, Sweet peppers the screenplay with a plethora of side-splitting insults for the cast to throw at one another. While it is important to admit that much of the heavy lifting comes from the performances of Colman and Buckley, without Sweet’s writing, ‘Wicked Little Letters’ would potentially not be anywhere near as ‘wicked’.

That said, there are issues with the screenplay. The most glaring problem is its predictability. While it is granted that the story is based on fact, the film’s attempt to divert audience’s expectations (or even to keep them in some semblance of suspense) is somewhat lacking. The ‘who dunnit’ element of the film is not the main mystery, with the real penman being exposed to audiences within the first 45 minutes or so. While this is a refreshing deviation from the tired trope, it does leave audiences slightly irritated in waiting to find out how they will be caught. Knowing the culprit earlier is a nice change of pace, but also lessens the intrigue. On top of this is the constant reminder of the social divide between men and women of the time. While the positive feminist sentiment is celebratory, it can at times feel heavy-handed. The script might have benefitted from a touch more subtlety, allowing for the jokes and feminist ethos to permeate the film a bit better.

Negativity aside, ‘Wicked Little Letters’ is a fun film. Much of its success truly falls upon its exemplary cast. To no one’s surprise Olivia Colman is effortlessly brilliant as Edith Swan. Whether it be mildly reciting Bible passages or delivering a tirade of profanity-laden insults, Colman relishes her time on screen in every scene.

Anjana Vasan, as the resiliently resourceful PC Gladys Moss, is a fun straight woman to the wackiness surrounding her. Serving as the audience surrogate, Vasan’s Moss delivers a performance fun of nuanced reactions and comical scepticism.

The true MVP of the film though is Jessie Buckley’s foul-mouthed Rose Gooding. Buckley aptly balances Gooding’s vulgarity in language and demeanour with her vulnerability as a single mother. ‘Wicked Little Letters’ is the third film Buckley and Colman have done together (following 2021’s ‘The Lost Daughter’ and 2022’s ‘Scrooge: A Christmas Carol’). The chemistry the actresses have with one another is second to none. Whether it be friends, adversaries, or something in between, Colman and Buckley’s onscreen relationship is the true star of ‘Wicked Little Letters’.

The old saying goes, “the pen is mightier than the sword”. In the case of Thea Sharrock’s ‘Wicked Little Letter’, this may just happen to be the truth. Words fill the world with a spectrum of colour, with this film painting the screen with many shades of blue. While it may not be for everyone, particularly those easily offended by excessive swearing, ‘Wicked Little Letters’ can only be described as a wicked little film. Whether it be for the comedy, the history, or yes the cursing, the film is sure to leave audiences exhilarated. We swear by it.

Wicked Little Letters’ opened nationally on Thursday, 21 March. Check your local cinema listings for sessions.  

Related Articles