REVIEW: Wicked Little Letters - laughs, sadness and a very sweary blast in Littlehampton scandal

Wicked Little Letters (15), (100 mins), Cineworld Cinemas
Wicked Little Letters (contributed pic)Wicked Little Letters (contributed pic)
Wicked Little Letters (contributed pic)

With filming locations including Arundel, Worthing and Littlehampton, there’s plenty to look out for in Wicked Little Letters, the tale of the poisonous, obscenity-laden scribblings which tormented Littlehampton back in the 1920s.

But just as importantly there are fine performances and a cracking good tale to savour – an intriguing story in the great British quirky comedy tradition, but ultimately also a story which hints at tragic depths of repression and frustration. There are plenty of laughs and an inordinate number of F-bombs, but maybe it’s the sadness of it all – plus a little hint of tenderness – which lingers most as the credits roll.

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A huge part of the pleasure is also the evocation of seaside Britain a century ago. It all feels fabulously convincing in terms of the interiors, the streets and the clothes, but also remarkably persuasive when it comes to the attitudes, the lives and the shadow the Great War was still casting.

At the film’s heart are two hugely contrasting neighbours who somehow strike up a strange friendship. At least to start with. There’s the deeply-conservative, brittly-pious Edith Swan (Olivia Colman) on one side of the dividing wall; on the other is the let-it-all-hang-out rowdy gobby Irish migrant Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley).

Something brings them together – but then Edith starts to receive the foulest, most profane letters in the post, spewing bile and the most colourful sexual innuendo. There’s general agreement that Rose is the most likely suspect – except, as Rose tellingly points out, why on earth would she write what everyone knows she wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to say?

Beholden to her bullying, domineering father (Timothy Spall), Colman is excellent in the role, absolutely outraged and yet somehow enjoying the outrage and the martyrdom which the letters quickly bring her.

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Buckley is similarly compelling as the devil-may-care single mum. Edith has got nothing to lose and that could just be her tragedy; Rose has got a heck of a lot to lose – and that could well be hers.

Suspecting her innocence, though, is Police Officer Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan), ahead of her time in an era where women police officers really aren’t expected or indeed invited to do anything and, just as bizarrely, an era when – even in a poison letter scandal – the courts apparently aren’t remotely interested in actually examining the handwriting. Gladys is warned off the case by her smugly uninquiring male superiors, but she drums up her allies – and it becomes a race against time as Rose’s trial beckons, a reckoning which could see her ripped away from her daughter for a very long time.

Just occasionally, as yet another letter is indignantly read aloud, you feel that the film possibly might actually need more to it than we are actually getting.

We soon get past the point where the letters are funny. And we soon get the point that they are appalling.

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Plus, arguably, it’s pretty obvious rather too soon just who exactly is behind them. But then again, that’s a key part of what’s probably going to make the film memorable – the sadness and the isolation which motivate the letter-writing rather than the sweary blast it results in.

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