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Original caricature by Jeff York of Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley in WICKED LITTLE LETTERS. (copyright 2024)

Sometimes the marketing of films aims for the easiest, lowest-hanging fruit. The new British film WICKED LITTLE LETTERS is one such example. It’s being sold as a near farcical comedy, with two great British actresses (Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley) playing characters extravagantly at odds with each other. A series of vicious, profane letters are being sent to Edith Swan (Colman) a prim, Christian woman in a small British ‘burg in the 1920s and it’s got her sheltered community in an uproar. Who would be so vicious and crass, and why are they targeting this respectable, sweet spinster? The number one suspect is her neighbor Rose Gooding (Buckley), a bawdy, pub regular, and single mother. Thus, this “odd couple” story is presented in the trailer as a madcap mystery, full of broad language and knee-slapping physical slapstick. Rose even gets slammed in the face by an angry shovel! But while the film is often hilarious, that’s only half the story. The rest is a surprisingly serious dissection of the era’s sexism, class system, and male brutality. And because of that, WICKED LITTLE LETTERS is a much better film for it.

The story of Edith and Rose is a true one, and naturally, it has relevance for today as women are still struggling under patriarchies and the legal system. As presented in the film, the local authorities aren’t particularly interested in a thorough investigation. Instead, they’re obsessed with standing on protocol, the continuation of societal norms, and keeping a stiff upper lip no matter what. The only cop who cares to dig for the genuine truth is PC Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan), even though she’s constantly being bossed around to fetch tea and know “her place.” Her superiors (Hugh Skinner and Paul Chahidi) can’t even be bothered to compare handwriting samples of the letters to the penmanship of Rose. They regard their accusation of her as an open-and-shut case because Rose is such a thorny vulgarian. That sentiment is echoed by Edith’s strict father (Timothy Spall), a passive/aggressive blowhard if there ever was one.

Despite her coarseness, Rose is a loving mother to her daughter Nancy (Alisha Weir) and boyfriend Bill (Malachy Kirby), rolling with the punches, and defying those trying to suppress her. Even when she’s carted off to prison before her trial, Rose is full of pluck and verve, turning her incarceration into a strengthening exercise. As her trial date beckons, the mystery will weave in several fun, albeit predictable directions, coming to an ultimate conclusion that probably is apparent to most before the first five minutes have spooled out.

But then the priorities of director Thea Sharrock and screenwriter Jonny Sweet lie not in the mystery as much in the reactions of the clutch of characters to each turn of the plot. Despite their “good girl” and “bad girl” roles, neither lead is only that as written or performed. Edith is clever, knowing, and hardly a simpleton. Rose may bellow and bitch, but she’s hurt by the slings and arrows of her contemporaries and has an indomitable spirit to her even when things aren’t going her way. Colman and Buckley make the most of every moment, and their body language is as telling as their words. At one point, Colman surprises Buckley by opening the door of their shared outhouse, and the angle upon which Buckley has chosen for Rose to sit on the john speaks volumes about her diet and its toll on her system. It’s hilarious!

And because they’re both such great actresses, we feel equally for both. Even when their characters are the most at odds with each other, the film gives them a sense of sisterhood, one that is enhanced by the ‘it takes a village’ sensibilities when Moss must reach out to three other women in the community (Eileen Atkins, Joanna Scanlan, and Lolly Adefope) to help her solve the case. The film slyly comments too on how certain prejudices still exist in such caste systems today and that we might even be backpedaling as a collective society.

The production values are as first-rate as you’d expect a British period piece to be, with a special nod to costume designer Charlotte Walter for telling us so much about each character from the way they’re dressed. Still, this is mostly an actor’s showcase, and Colman, Buckley, et al. bring it all to vivid life, earning both the laughs and the pathos from the first moments to the last. WICKED LITTLE LETTERS seems to realize very early on that while all the profanity is funny, it’s not that unusual to hear in today’s raunchy climate. Thus, to keep the story percolating and truly involving, the filmmakers make more out of why any of these small-town folk would utter such dirty words. Such choices underline the humanity driving both the comedy and drama. And no matter who’s responsible for such language, their choices are understandable, pitiable, and wholly relatable.

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