Wicked Little Letters

From the profane comes the sublime


“Wicked Little Letters” is delightfully wicked and naughty indeed. 

This amusing British mystery is inspired by a real-life scandal that rocked the population of the small Sussex town of Littlehampton in 1920. Catch the film at the M.V. Film Center beginning Thursday, May 2. 

Directed by Thea Sharrock, the film boasts a terrific cast whose comedic timing keeps us smiling, and whose stars are two masterful actresses, fully embodying their roles. 

Olivia Coleman, perhaps best known for her Golden Globe-winning role as Queen Elizabeth in the third and fourth seasons of “The Crown,” is pitch-perfect as Edith Swan. This seemingly overly pious, timid church mouse is bombarded by outrageously crude missives full of hilarious profanities. Openings such as “Dear Edith. You foxy-a__ old whore. You really are a tricksy old f_____,” gives you a tiny taste.

After receiving her 19th such letter, Edith, who is a spinster living with her controlling, psychologically abusive father, Edward, and retiring mother, is greatly overcome. A blustering Edward, played by Tim Spall, calls in the constabulary, and points his finger at the boisterous, filthy-mouthed, next-door neighbor, Rose Gooding. Downplaying the situation, Edith says, “In the end, I think it’s just jealousy.” 

Rose, who is played by Jessie Buckley, and who has a heart of gold, is charged with the crime. She is thoroughly appealing as the flippantly irreverent, filthy-mouth outcast from Ireland who moved to the sleepy seaside town for her daughter’s sake after the death of her husband in World War I. Although Rose is scandalously living unmarried with her supportive black boyfriend (Malachi Kirby), her love for her daughter (the brash Alisha Weir) is paramount, even if Rose is quite an unconventional mom. 

It turns out that Edith and Rose form an unlikely friendship. We see it in touching moments where the diametrically opposite unmarried women bond. That is, until Rose beats up one of Edward’s guests at his birthday party. When the local police get involved, things get complicated. The letters stop when Rose is arrested. But they return with a vengeance when she is released on bail — arriving in many other villagers’ mailboxes. Rose protests her innocence, defending herself on the witness stand with such arguments as, “Why would I send a letter when I can just say it?”

The atmospheric film, shot by Ben Davis, takes place during the suffragette movement in the U.K. The theme of women’s empowerment, or lack thereof, runs throughout the story. Much of the village believes Rose is guilty. But a handful of idiosyncratic women of different ages and races band together to prove her innocence, producing many humorous scenes, including ones with slapstick hints of the Keystone Cops.

While the male constables are eager to condemn Rose, Woman Constable Moss (played with both humor and tenacity by Anjana Vasan) is not so sure, after comparing Rose’s handwriting to the person penning the wicked little notes. Rose appeals to her for help, but is initially rebuffed. That is, until Moss is forbidden to pursue the case by her dismissive boss.

Women’s liberation isn’t the only serious theme running through “Wicked Little Letters.” The film’s racially diverse casting, especially the choice of a nonwhite actor for the Woman Constable, modernizes the film, while it reinforces Officer Moss’s outsider status as a woman of color challenging the status quo.

With justice and race issues piercing the comedic veil of this whodunit, the film shifts beyond just an amusing romp through a humorous access point onto contemporary concerns. 

“Wicked Little Letters” keeps you thinking on a subtler level while you are laughing, even if you think you know who, or what, the real culprit is.

“Wicked Little Letters” will be shown on May 2–5 and on May 9 at the Film Center. For tickets, visit mvfilmsociety.com.