Thursday, April 4, 2024

film review: Wicked Little Letters


Directed by Thea Sharrock

Written by Jonny Sweet

ChinoKino review: C

Reviewed by Allan Tong

In 1919, in the English seaside town of Littlehampton, two neighbours, Edith Swann and Rose Gooding, ceased being friends when Edith reported Rose to the authorities after Edith and other members of Littlehampton received poison pen letters full of threats and obscenities, including the C-Word. In Thea Sharrock's film treatement, co-scripted by Jonnny Sweet, Edith is prim and proper, upholding the values of early-20th-century England, while Rose is the free-spirited and feisty Irish immigrant. If the two were men, then no scandal or police investigation would have erupted. After all, it was fine for men to curse, at least in letters, but, oh dear, not women.

Though performances by leads Olivia Colman (as Edith), one of the Britain's top actors, and Jessie Buckley (Rose) are strong, their characters are thin and one-dimensional. I never got to understand them nor did I care to. Another problem with this film is the approach to race. Rose's lover is a Black man and Police Officer Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan) is of South Asian decent. I don't know if these two are based on real-life characters, but racism was rife in 1919 England and yet race is never mentioned in the film. Instead, sexism is placed front and centre.


Look, I'm all for racial diversity in films, including the ones I have made and the many I have programmed for festivals, but this casting doesn't work in this context. Sharrock has applied 2023 mores onto a 1919 setting, and the juxtaposition just confuses the viewer. The non-white characters are elephants in the proverbial room and amounts to awkward storytelling.

A final flaw with Wicked Little Letters is tone. This is supposed to be a black comedy, but it's played for broad laughs and few of the jokes land. Instead, all the white guys, including the cops (except Moss) are sexist buffoons, Rose is party animal and Edith is uptight. Their dialogue lacks wit, lacks bite. The two leads never feel like close friends to start the story, so there's no sense of loss when they fall out. Moreover, the scandal over the foul language doesn't translate to audiences. So what? What's the big deal? Some bad language in letters. Shrug. Sharrock doesn't establish the milieu where these letters are shocking to the public.

In the end, Wicked Little Letters is a big misfire, led by good intentions, but misapplied in an historic story that fails to condemn sexism.

Wicked Little Letters opens April 5 in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and expands to other cities on April 12.

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