Wicked Little Letters

Although Wicked Little Letters takes place in the 1920s, it could not have more relevance to our online age. The story deals with trolling, that bizarre activity in which one person insults another anonymously. Because it is set pre-internet, the good old-fashioned mail service is how said trolling occurs. The recipient is Edith Swan (Olivia Colman), a spinster and devout Christian who still lives at home with her demanding father Edward (Timothy Spall) and mother Victoria (Gemma Jones). As the story opens, she receives her 19th vulgar letter filled with insults and profanity. (“Dear Edith, you foxy-ass old whore” it begins.) She’s offended, Edward is livid.

Who’s sending them? The chief suspect is next-door neighbor Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley), a war widow who curses like a drunken sailor and is known for speaking her mind. She steadfastly proclaims her innocence, yet the local cops arrest her anyway. The only person who believes her is the town’s sole female police officer, Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan). When the chief forbids Gladys from investigating, she ignores him.

Marketing materials for Wicked Little Letters say, “It’s not a whodunit, it’s a who wrote it?” That could not be more accurate. The mystery surrounding the identity of the writer generates a great deal of fun, as it becomes clear that many residents of Littlehampton are a bit two-sided when it comes to Edith, acting nicely toward her personally, then gossiping about her elsewhere. The letters themselves generate guffaws, thanks to the creative vulgarities contained in them. An intriguing detail is that the language used absolutely sounds like what comes out of Rose’s mouth, making her efforts to exonerate herself complicated.

For all the comedy it contains, the movie still has a sincere message about the hurtful nature of trolling, both for the recipient and the sender. Damages to the former are obvious. For the latter, the story points out that you have to be a sad, pathetic person to go out of your way to make somebody else miserable, especially if you don’t have the guts to say it to their face. The identity of the letter writer is revealed before the end, allowing for analysis of the trolling mindset.

A picture like this depends on the performances. They’re excellent across the board. Colman is perfection as Edith, nailing the quality of being aghast that many religious people have upon hearing sex talk or profanity. As the story goes on, her turn deepens in fascinating ways, revealing layers to the character we didn’t initially know were there. Buckley is similarly good as the feisty, boisterous Rose. We believe her when she says she’d tell someone off face-to-face rather than put it in a secret letter. The scene-stealer is Spall, who plays Edward as a bitter old man. Perpetually scowling and spitting out his words as if they were poison, he scores the film’s biggest laughs.

Based on a true story, Wicked Little Letters occasionally plays the humor a bit too broadly. The movie is best when it’s a comedy of manners. Fortunately, that’s most of the time. Great acting and a sharp script ensure the story is a wild ride that nevertheless has a big heart at its center.

out of four

Wicked Little Letters is rated R for language. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.


© 2024 Mike McGranaghan