Wicked Little Letters delivers a charming mystery with hysterical moments

Oscar winner Olivia Colman and Oscar nominee Jessie Buckley star in Wicked Little Letters, a comedic war-of-the-words British feature based on real events. As Fatima Sheriff writes, the film brings much needed colour to a national landscape of true stories.

In recent years, British cinema has been won over by a litany of true stories, from political events on a grander scale, like The King’s Speech to Operation Mincemeat to the wondrous campaigns of everyday folk, with the likes of Pride and The Duke. This small island seems to have a bottomless supply of fascinating tales to tell, with prestige casts lining up to play these icons uncovered from history.

Emblazoned with the promise that this story is “more true than you think”, enter Wicked Little Letters, a salacious scandal that brings a flurry of four letter words to this almost pristine canon. Based on the Littlehampton Letters, Olivia Colman stars as Edith Swan, a good Christian woman repeatedly targeted by a poison pen pal who comes up with increasingly florid and creative insults. Living at home, her elderly parents (Timothy Spall and Gemma Jones) force her to report them to the police and a court case follows.

The prime suspect is Edith’s neighbour, the irascible Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley in all her Irish glory), and as a biassed small town police force are wont to do, they quickly arrest her with little hope of paying bail. However, some do believe in her innocence, including Woman Police Officer, Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan), with a motley crew of Edith’s friends determined to seek justice.

This three-handed comedy is deftly handled by Buckley, Colman, and Vasan, with the former pair finally uniting after playing younger and older versions of the same character in The Lost Daughter and the latter deserving her rise in popularity after the iconic Channel 4 series We Are Lady Parts. The script gives them all plenty to work with, beyond the swearing, each woman is sharp, quick-witted, and significantly, dealing with their own struggles in a patriarchal small-town society.

This Littlehampton is populated with British icons, Rose’s boyfriend is the stunning Malachi Kirby and her daughter is Alisha Weir fresh from her role as Matilda, eager to play guitar no matter what the neighbours think. Hugh Skinner is the dim-witted and two-faced Constable, an unpleasant misogynist behind closed doors, and in public, blundering around after a writer who only says what he is really thinking. Meanwhile, Joanna Scanlon and Lolly Adefope are among the delightful bridge club turned sleuths who Gladys enlists to help her find the writer of the letters.

With a trailer that promises a light-hearted mystery peppered with R-rated language to make viewers gasp, the actuality brings a surprising sense of suffocation and peril. Edith’s father is abusive and cruel, Gladys is regularly demeaned and faces suspension for doing her job, and Rose could lose her beloved daughter, and in a sense, the need for comedic relief and resolution does sometimes lighten what are actually heavy consequences. Sometimes, Wicked Little Letters unsuccessfully balances subverting and playing along to the beats of a true story, making its identity a little murky and confusing. Somehow it goes harder than you expect it to in emotional impact, and yet despite being unafraid to punctuate its point with expletives, it somehow doesn’t go far enough.

The film’s approach to colour blind casting means it introduces race as a factor but doesn’t address it, when there is plenty of extra room within its short run time to weave it into the comedy and the social commentary. Not unlike Bridgerton, which also mostly ignores its Irish, Black and Asian casting and focuses on a limited lens of feminist storytelling, there are alternatives where both could easily weave in more intersectional critique but aren’t able or aren’t willing to do so.

But credit where credit is due, Thea Sharrock’s direction and Jonny Sweet’s script makes for some truly hysterical moments (“DIE SLUT? It’s German”) and the comedic chemistry across the cast buoys up this film beyond its predecessors. This charming little mystery is more my kind of “true” story over music and monarchy biopics, and I’ll always be seated to see Jessie Buckley’s smile, Olivia Colman’s giggles, and Anjana Vasan thriving.