Wicked Little Letters Review | Return to Sender

by Andrew Parker

Partially based on a true story, the uneven and only occasionally amusing British period dramedy Wicked Little Letters is the kind of movie that can only generate chuckles through the reckless use of profanity and emotional resonance through acts of cruelty. That’s not always a bad thing, mind. Cursing, when done properly or ludicrously, can often be hilarious, and there wouldn’t be dark comedy without hints of cynicism and malice. Where Wicked Little Letters stumbles is in its desire to have two completely different things at the same time: a foul mouthed treatise on the roles of women in post World War I British society and a traditional, easily accessible BBC level production that doesn’t challenge the viewer in the slightest. While people go to war with each other verbally in the streets, in the press, and in the courtroom throughout Wicked Little Letters, not much of it has a lasting impact thanks to the frivolous tone employed by director Thea Sharrock and writer Jonny Sweet.

During the 1920s in the small town of Littlehampton in Sussex, a major scandal begins when esteemed, devout local resident Edith Swan (Olivia Colman) – who lives with her elderly father (Timothy Spall) and mother (Gemma Jones) – begins receiving profanity laced letters via the post. The local constables don’t really want to investigate the matter in any great detail, but they settle upon Edith’s neighbour, Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley) as the likely perpetrator. Rose, a single mother to a young daughter (Alisha Weir) with a live-in black boyfriend (Malachi Kirby), is a hard partying, out going, foul-mouthed, quick tempered Irish immigrant, making her an easy target for the local conservatives to seize upon. Rose is put on trial for obscenity and harassment, but local female police officer Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan) and a group of local women think the neighbour is innocent of the crimes.

Wicked Little Letters is a film that has a lot of good ideas, but the overall tone and tenor of the production lets down the better bits and its stacked cast. If there’s anything that Sweet’s script conveys nicely, it’s the rampant sexism that women were subjected to in the wake of World War II. During the war, women could handle any number of high level jobs while the men were on the frontlines, and they were indispensable employees. Post war, they were all expected to go back to their traditional motherly and familial roles and into a renewed subservience (without realizing they would be called upon again to do the same thing about a decade and a half later with the arrival of another major war). Rose, Edith, and Gladys all experience this underestimation and push back, and the pain they exhibit is real, pronounced, and accounts for their drive and sense of purpose.

There’s also the parallel between these poison pen letters and the current state of modern discourse. The idea of saying hurtful, libellous, and disgusting things to another person under the guise of anonymity isn’t a modern construct. These things were around before the post, bathroom walls, chat rooms, and social media were even invented. Wicked Little Letters does a nicely subtle job of showing that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The modern era didn’t invent the outrage machine and the cycles of news it perpetuates. It just found new technology and another set of outlets.

But that’s about as good as Sharrock (The One and Only Ivan, Me Before You) and actor turned writer Sweet get with Wicked Little Letters. As a comedy, Wicked Little Letter only excels at finding new ways to curse and degrade, but once the script tries to shift out of that lane into something more sophisticated and pointed, the material falls flat. As a drama, Wicked Little Letters is forced, static, and unexceptional, relying on maudlin, easily delivered platitudes about womanhood and mothering to gets its most obvious points across without too much fuss or complexity. And as a mystery it fails the hardest through sheer force of obviousness. If the viewer can’t guess who’s sending these letters within the first ten minutes (hint: look for the person who’s obviously overacting as a choice), maybe they’ll end up being surprised. Thankfully, the identity of the mad writer is made known once the letters start getting sent to the community at large, rather than just to Edith, but that just allows for a different twist to land during the trial portion of the film; one that’s even crueler than the unseen villain’s ultimate motivations.

Wicked Little Letters tries to be an ensemble film, but quite often ends up placing the focus where it doesn’t belong, or in place of a better story with more interesting protagonists that’s always bubbling under the surface. Colman and Buckley have played both of these kinds of roles before, but only the latter gets a chance to truly shine, and it’s mostly because she can cuss with the best of them and brings a lot of energy to her performance. Colman (who also serves as a producer) gets saddled with a character that’s a bit of a bland, blank slate by design, and she never quite figures out how to roll with the story pivots she has been handed. 

So much of Wicked Little Letters focuses on Edith, when that isn’t where the best part of the story are found. The better story doesn’t even lie in showing Rose’s perspective, although her drama does feel a little weightier. Had this film been about Vasan’s female police officer of colour trying and failing to crack a case no one wants any part of, Wicked Little Letters would’ve sprung to vibrant, irreverent life. It’s a story that begs to be told from the point of view of a third party observer, and not necessarily the people caught up in the whirlwind. Vasan is a revelation in her role, and handily outshines everyone here except Spall, who’s perfectly cast as a blustering, old timer who needs an axe to grind for his life to feel validated. Had Wicked Little Letters been more of a mystery than an unfocused narrative in search of more cohesion, this could’ve been something special.

Wicked Little Letters gets the job done in the same manner as many other stately looking British period comedies, but outside of some spicy language, most of this is grabbing at low hanging, slowly rotting fruit. It’s aimed at a specific kind of viewer who won’t mind the transgressive undercurrents as long as everything else is wrapped up in a familiar, flavourless package. There’s a better movie to be found within this concept and story, but it must’ve gotten lost in the mail.

Wicked Little Letters opens at Varsity Cinemas in Toronto, Fifth Avenue in Vancouver, and Cineplex Forum and Cineplex Quartier Latin in Montreal on Friday, April 5, 2024. It expands to Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, Victoria, and other Canadian cities on April 12.

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