Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley re-unite to delightfully profane effect in this sweary comic twist on the cosy period drama
Dir: Thea Sharrock. UK. 2023. 100 mins.
In this enormously entertaining period romp, the chintzy propriety of a demure corner of 1920s Sussex, the seaside town of Littlehampton, is rocked by a plague of elaborately filthy poison pen letters. Edith (Olivia Colman), a God-fearing spinster, is the initial target of the missives, a cross she bears with simpering saintliness. And her next-door neighbour, a rambunctious Irish immigrant named Rose (Jessie Buckley) seems to be the obvious culprit. But Woman Police Officer Gladys Ross (Anjana Vasan) suspects that the case is not as clear-cut as it initially seems. The latest film from Thea Sharrock (Me Before You), Wicked Little Letters is, we are told, “more true than you’d think”. Whether or not there’s a factual basis to the story, it’s undeniably an absolute blast.
A gloriously profane screenplay by Jonny Sweet
Reuniting The Lost Daughter co-stars Colman and Buckley, the film gives both the opportunity to fully flex their comedic talents. And they deliver admirably, milking every last four-letter expletive from a gloriously profane screenplay by Jonny Sweet. Though not as visually stylised as Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, the film similarly taps into the subversive appeal of filling the normally fusty landscape of the costume drama with volcanic outbursts of swearing. Cutting a PG-rated trailer might be a challenge, but the film has real commercial potential and, beneath all the scatological insults, a stirring sense of decency and fairness.
We join the story just in time to witness the arrival of the 19th letter. Edith opens it with fluttering fingers, while her elderly parents look on, appalled. Edith’s overbearing father, Edward (Timothy Spall, with an apoplectic complexion and a fascistic moustache) has had enough. He stomps off to the local police station to lodge a complaint but is further incensed to be confronted by – the horror! – a female police officer. According to Edward, Rose’s guilt is certain. After all, she curses like a fish, has straggly hair and has been know to walk around “with feet as bare as goose eggs.”
Edith meanwhile, makes it sanctimoniously clear that she would prefer to look at the whole sorry mess in the spirit of Christian forgiveness (“By my suffering, do I not move closer to heaven?”). But even though she believes that there is ultimately no judge but the Almighty, she’s prepared to go along with due legal processes for the time being. Even if this means a kangaroo court and Rose potentially losing custody of her daughter. Feisty Rose scoffs at the allegations – a woman who has previously settled arguments with a well-aimed headbutt, she is not, she reasons, the anonymous type. But the wheels of justice in little England are oiled with plenty of anti-Irish prejudice.
Sharrock deftly balances the cliches of a certain kind of British period piece against the scabrous, sweary screenplay, to delicious effect. The quaint streets of Littlehampton are shot with an eye for a certain kind of archly twee, crocheted cosiness; the score bustles around fussily, like a curtain-twitching busybody. This, juxtaposed with a generous screenplay that ensures most of the supporting characters get a least one juicy line of dialogue, results in a movie that is, to borrow the picture’s vernacular, as funny as fuck.
Production companies: Studiocanal, Film4, Blueprint Pictures, South of the River Pictures, People Person Pictures
International sales: Studiocanal email@example.com
Producers: Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin, Ed Sinclair, Olivia Colman, Jo Wallett
Screenplay: Jonny Sweet
Cinematography: Ben Davis
Editing: Melanie Ann Oliver
Production design: Cristina Casali
Music: Isobel Waller-Bridge
Main cast: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Timothy Spall, Anjana Vasan, Gemma Jones, Eileen Atkins, Jason Watkins, Joanna Scanlan