Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley Profusely Swear to Keep Britain Tidy in Thea Sharrock’s ‘Wicked Little Letters’

The poison pen letter was a very popular tool for old school trolls. Predating snark, it was the literate version of the anonymous venom of modern internet attacks. Most of these naughty correspondences went unnoticed, others wrought scandal. Some things never change, most only get worse. British director Thea Sharrock’s subtly satirical drama “Wicked Little Letters” is set in Littlehampton in the 1920s. Edith Swan (Olivia Colman) is a pious, morally upstanding pillar of the Sussex seaside community. Fresh in town from Ireland, Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley) is a liberated war widow who likes to drink, talk dirty, and enjoy her boyfriend Bill (Malachi Kirby), a jazz guitarist no less. Not trad jazz, however. Rose hides little from her son, who she adores. The two women really should get on famously.

“She’s heinous,” Edith appraises her new neighbor, “what we feared would come after the war.” The godly Miss Swan shouldn’t be judged too harshly. She has a cross to bear. She has been receiving the most horrid of anonymous notes lately. The one which arrives in the post at the beginning of the film describes her as a “foxy-arsed old whore.” It doesn’t appear to be a complement, though it is ultimately a tad narcissistic in the holier-than-thou scheme of things. Until all the best people in town start getting one. It’s hard to turn the other cheek on that. “Wicked Little Letters” is a true story (“more true than you’d think,” a title card tells us), adapted by screenwriter Jonny Sweet from the 2017 book by Christopher Hilliard. The film revels in sweet spot where the stiff upper lip gets licked by the loose tongue. 

The gags are uneven, because the biting evisceration of British society doesn’t need traditional wacky comedy, especially when the words are the main actors. Particularly when delivered by Olivia Colman in a spitfire of eternal perdition. This from a performer whose best takes come nonverbally. Naturally funny, Colman makes Edith as vulnerable as she is vindictive, but never quite likable. It is a testament to the actor when her character would make you want to cross the street if you saw her coming.

Buckley’s Rose seems to be a character to get close to. At least in scenes with her son, if not when she’s aiming darts or shovels at people’s faces, in the name of fun, of course. Buckley streaks through the film with the majority of the physical humor. The rest is taken up by the amateur detective trio gathering evidence on the mysterious author targeting anyone whose weak constitution can’t abide mailed declarations of indelicate offense. The whodunnit aspect of this film doesn’t quite work because the audience is pretty sure who has done it while it was being done. The police inspector has to shoo away an underling offering yet another listing of the same prime suspect.

The period drama coincides with the rapid changes to British society following World War I. Rose and Woman Police Constable Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan) also represent the cold shoulder presented to perennial outsiders. Rose is an Irishwoman, unfamiliar with the ways of the strictly traditional tea-timers. Gladys is the designated “Woman” police presence among a very closed male crowd of old-school cops. Chain of command, old chap, it’s the name of the game. It doesn’t matter how many Suffragettes fight for women’s right to vote, no self-respecting citizen would be caught dead being waited on by a female outsider in a police uniform. Especially not a WPC, the lowest rank in the law enforcement hierarchy. It’s no wonder Vasan can’t help but roll her eyes in response to everything said around her. In real life, she’d be begged to wear sunglasses.

Timothy Spall is a nightmare in character. He plays Edith’s domineering father Edward as a monstrosity made of all the images moviegoers have been taught to despise about stodgy Brits. Spall’s Edward contains elements of the teacher in Alan Parker’s “The Wall,” forced to eat the gristle of the evening meal, mixed with every Dursley family member Harry Potter encounters outside of Hogwarts. 

“Wicked Little Letters” is a bit heavy-handed in its passive-aggressive treachery and late-act reveals. It works best as a juxtapositioned farce, overblown but underplayed, careful always to adhere to quiet desperation so the almost orgasmic explosions of ingeniously vile bile can overflow with a capital G, for gusto, in a land where Miller time never comes. 

Wicked Little Letters” releases March 29 in New York and Los Angeles, and April 5 nationwide.