Wicked Little Letters (2024)

Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley star in the British comedy “Wicked Little Letters.”

Stars make ‘Letters’ something to write home about

When it comes down to it, words are just words, no matter how they are arranged. It’s how they are interpreted that matters. What’s offensive to you might not be offensive to me. Such are the machinations at play in “Wicked Little Letters,” one of those twee British trifles abounding with quirky characters inhabiting a tiny burg where everyone is in each other’s business.

It’s pretty good, I swear. Well, it’s actually Jessie Buckley doing most of the swearing as Rose Gooding, a war-widowed mother with a penchant for dropping a battery of F-bombs even during the most refined conversations. She’s Irish, you know, an emigrant who recently settled in straight-laced Littlehampton, West Sussex, where – being it’s the 1920s – men are sexist and women are expected to behave as the town fathers deem appropriate.

Never grasping the concept of “go along to get along,” Rose rarely wastes an opportunity to offend with her vibrant vocabulary. She’s a “smashed hit” at the pub. But among the proper, God-fearing populace, she’s established as a raving menace and a terrible influence on her 10-year-old daughter, Nancy (Alisha Weir). Worse, she’s living in sin with a man of color in Bill (Malachi Kirby), who rather enjoys Rose’s fiery, unapologetic demeanor.

Their Bible-thumping next-door neighbors, the Swans, do not share that sentiment. Not in the least. It’s a loathing intensified by Rose’s attempts at befriending the Swans’ “spinster” daughter, Edith, a woman Olivia Colman plays so buttoned up you’re certain she’s never once experienced joy in her 40-odd years. Then, “they” start arriving in the post.

Those would be the titular “letters,” nasty, vulgar missives scribbled on small scraps of paper. Why, they read just like Rose talks! She “must” be the wielder of this poison pen! So say the local constables who waste no time slapping on the cuffs. Open and shut, they shout. But not all. Rookie policewoman Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan) is convinced it’s a frame-up and sets out to prove Rose’s innocence even if it costs her the job she loves so dearly.

That’s the bare-bones plot cooked up by Jonny Sweet, who claims his script is “more true than you’d think.” Director Thea Sharrock assents to that proclamation in bold letters splashed across the screen at the start. So? What else have you got? Alas, not much. As I remarked in reviewing her 2016 weepy, “Me Before You,” Sharrock knows how to coax terrific performances, but squanders that knack on material lacking gravitas and depth.

Her two female leads seem keenly aware of this, which might explain why they conjure enchanting performances in spiffing up a poorly conceived screenplay striving to survive on eccentricity alone. Buckley and Colman, who played the same character at different ages in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter,” are having none of it, using every trick they can muster to make Rose and Edith more compelling than they have a right.

Equally strong supporting turns by Timothy Spall and Gemma Jones as Edith’s easily offended parents, and Eileen Atkins as one of Rose’s converts, add to the appeal of a movie that unabashedly champions feminist themes of emancipation, empowerment and extending the middle finger to a patriarchy bent on keeping women in their places.

That certainly works in the film’s favor, as does its sly implication and condemnation of the evils of today’s troll-infested social media. But what saves it is the spellbinding magic Buckley and Colman create in bowling you over with oodles of charm and personality. You can honestly say they are positively obscene.

Movie review

Wicked Little Letters

Rated: R for sexual material and language throughout

Cast: Jessie Buckley, Olivia Colman, Anjana Vasan, Timothy Spall, Eileen Atkins and Gemma Jones

Director: Thea Sharrock

Writer: Jonny Sweet

Runtime: 102 minutes

Where: In theaters

Grade: B

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