Dirty talk

English comedy ‘Wicked Little Letters’ is a scandalous good time

Olivia Colman (left) and Jessie Buckley in Wicked Little Letters. Courtesy: Sony Pictures Classics

A letter has arrived at the Swan residence, a despicable letter riddled with obscenities and sexual vulgarity. It’s the 19th of its kind, and each one has scandalized dear old Victoria Swan (Gemma Jones), her stiff-upper-lip of a husband, Edward (Timothy Spall), and their adult daughter Edith (Olivia Colman). The police are called in but offer little help and no promise of an arrest. Edward is flabbergasted that such lewd behavior is allowed to carry on in his England. Surely someone of low class and lower morals is to blame.

Naturally. Which is why the Swans, the police and pretty much everyone else living in the seaside village of Littlehampton suspects single mother Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley). Why? Because Rose is a modern woman who drinks at the pub in the middle of the day and can swear a scarlet streak at the drop of a hat. That, and she’s Irish. 

The year is 1920, and England is still in the grips of a class system so stifling even those playing by the rules yearn to break free. Especially the women of Littlehampton: They were given new duties and roles in the community while the men went off to fight in the trenches of the Great War. Now the men have returned, and they want everything to go back to the way things were before. Some, particularly Edward, want a return to conservatism so extreme it’s almost as if he’s punishing every last woman for being a woman in the first place.

Written by Jonny Sweet and directed by Thea Sharrock, Wicked Little Letters is based on a real-life scandal — recently unknown until now, according to a couple of title cards at the narrative’s conclusion — but retains the fun of an English period drama. Save for a few scenes, most of the events unfold in and around the homes of Rose and Edith, which give Sweet’s script the feeling of a stage play. That might sound like a knock, but it isn’t. With Colman, Buckley, Spall and Jones on screen, as well as Anjana Vasan as a police officer trying to solve the case with help from neighbor Ann (Joanna Scanlan), the best thing a writer and director can do is provide the material and let the actors run with it. Sharrock aids a cinematic flair here and there but makes sure the performers do what they came here to do.

And they do. Wicked Little Letters is verbose and vulgar in all the right ways. It’s also a fairly clever way to depict the consequences of repression and suppression on anyone — regardless of their class, gender or race. “Once I started, I just couldn’t stop,” the author of the obscene letters admits. 

The author of the letters isn’t much of a mystery. Sweet and Sharrock reveal that piece of information about halfway through the story. Why they wrote what they did is the real question. As is the question of whether they will be caught before someone else, someone from a lower class, takes the fall. It’s a sophisticated little comedy when all is said and done — with about as many F-bombs as a crime drama to boot. 

ON SCREEN: Wicked Little Letters, May 8-12, Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder


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