Wicked Little Letters review: Jessie Buckley and Olivia Colman swear like dockers in drama about ostracised Irish woman in quiet English town

When anonymous obscene letters are delivered to local notables of a stuffy English town, the finger of blame points at an Irish woman

Wicked Little Letters
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Director: Thea Sharrock
Cert: 15A
Starring: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Anjana Vasan, Joanna Scanlan, Gemma Jones, Malachi Kirby, Lolly Adefope, Eileen Atkins, Timothy Spall
Running Time: 1 hr 44 mins

There has never been an era that didn’t think “bad language” was on the increase. Yet, the, ahem, F-word was so common among soldiers in the first World War that if an NCO didn’t use it you’d know the situation was serious.

Set in the aftermath of that conflict – and much informed by it – this salty true-life comedy reminds us, nonetheless, that cussing was still seen as something nice ladies on nice streets didn’t do.

It is a fine coincidence that Jessie Buckley, after grim roles in Men, Women Talking and Fingernails, returns to character called Rose. Like the eponymous hero of her breakthrough feature, Wild Rose, the current rebel is never averse to climbing on a table and waving a glass of beer over her bellowing head.

When Rose Gooding, an Irish woman with a child born out of wedlock, first moved into the West Sussex town of Littlehampton, her neighbour Edith Swan (a rollicking Olivia Colman) was welcoming, but, by the point the film starts, the two have found themselves at loggerheads.


Someone is sending anonymous obscene letters to the local notables, and a few of the worst have come Edith’s way. Rose’s background counts against her, and, despite little incriminating evidence, she soon finds herself locked up.

Gesturing towards our current era of digital trolling, Wicked Little Letters has much to do with prejudice. Gooding was English in real life, but making that shift in the character allows us to add Irishness to the basket of qualities – being working class, being unmarried, swearing like a docker – that could get you ostracised in a suffocatingly neat town like Littlehampton. All this is mixed with a general misogyny exemplified by a quietly savage performance from Timothy Spall as Edith’s awful father.

At its best Wicked Little Letters has some of the regional sauce that Alan Bennett so savours in his dialogue. Colman and Buckley wallop the nautical language back and forth like central European baseliners in a Wimbledon final. Sadly, the film runs out of steam as it develops into a detective story with a solution that will surprise nobody.

No blame attaches to Anjana Vasan, sparky as a patronised “woman police officer”, but the sub-Christie tweeness of the later stages suggests something you’d skip past on ITV3 in the early hours.

Still, the fine cast just about keep it alive until the inevitable denouement.

Wicked Little Letters opens on Friday, February 23rd

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist