You’ve seen Women Talking, welcome to Women Swearing: Wicked Little Letters, Thea Sharrock’s fantastically funny feature puts Jessie Buckley and Olivia Colman together in the filthiest pairing since Derek met Clive in the late 1970s. Set in 1920, it’s based on a story that, per the credits, is “more true than you’d think”, which, when you get to the end of it, is quite a claim. Think what a hip, modern and actually funny Carry On spoof of Call the Midwife might look like, scripted by the Coen brothers, shot with a little visual nod to Wes Anderson, and dictated by a screenwriter with Tourette Syndrome.
Throw in a bit of St. Trinian’s moral anarchy (Launder and Gilliatt version only) and you have the runaway British comedy of the year, a sometimes cry-laughing four-letter smackdown that might well benefit from the awards-season envelope currently being pushed by Yorgos Lanthimos’s Venice-winning Poor Things.
The setting is Littlehampton, Sussex, where Edith Swan (Colman) lives next door to Irish firebrand Rose Gooding (Buckley) on Western Road. The film opens in res media, with the arrival of the 19th letter to the Swan house. Addressed to Edith, it is, like the previous 18, impertinent, incredibly rude and perversely hilarious, although her strictly religious parents are not about to see the funny side. Edith rises above it (”There are benefits to suffering,” she simpers, stoically), but her father Edward is incensed and takes it to the police station, fully prepared to cause “a hurlyburloo.”
Edward thinks the culprit is obvious: Irish neighbour Rose, who must surely be a wrong ’un because she’s a single mother who drinks too much and, perhaps the worse crime of all, has “straggly hair”. The police think so too, and, after her daughter is taken into custody by social services, Rose is arrested and sentenced to two-and-a-half months in a Portsmouth jail (“You f*cking w*nkers!” she screams as her mugshot is taken). But something doesn’t seem right to the people of Littlehampton, especially the women’s whist group, who arrange to pay Rose’s bail. At the same time, “woman police officer” Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan) is becoming more and more convinced of Rose’s innocence, much to the annoyance of her male superiors, who think, like everyone else, that it’s an open-and-shut case. But after Rose is released, more and more letters appear, going far and wide, suggesting Rose really is the culprit, and attracting the attention of the British government, which tickles Edith no end.
At the time, Rose’s guilt must have been a no-brainer, but what seems obvious to audiences now is that Rose just has no filter — as she will say later at her trial, “Why would I send a letter when I could just say it?” But though it’s hardly a mystery as to what’s really been going on, Wicked Little Letters soon becomes a very British kind of intrigue, with officer Moss as a renegade Miss Marple trying to marshal the local ladies to clear Rose’s name: imagine the heroine of Agatha Christie’s Murder, She Said snooping around in the BBC’s Little Britain.
But plot is not the be-all and end-all here; the best thing about Sharrock’s film is not just Jonny Sweet’s deliciously profane script, it’s the fun that the cast have with it. There’s so much joy in the pigswill of the English language that these increasingly bizarre letters become characters in their own right. The handcrafted insults are just wonderful: “Call that a chin? There’s nothing f*cking there,” “Thank God your dad got shot, you smelly bitch,” and (a personal favorite) “Your f*cking arse is bigger than the moon!”
Obviously, we can all agree that there’s nothing at all clever about swearing, so we must lay the credit for Sharrock’s film at the doors of its wonderful, mostly female cast. The central pairing of Buckley and Colman is clearly the swear-off of the century, like a home-counties rumble in the jungle, but Wicked Little Letters has just as much else to recommend it, in supporting performances from Lolly Adefope, Joanna Scanlan and Eileen Atkins. Special mention must go, however, to the fantastic Anjana Vasan, star of Channel 4’s way underrated We Are Lady Parts and who gives the film its heart and soul. To paraphrase Madonna, when she compared kd lang to Elvis, Buster Keaton is alive — and she is beautiful.
Title: Wicked Little Letters
Festival: Toronto International Film Festival
Director: Thea Sharrock
Screenwriter: Jonny Sweet
Cast: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Anjana Vasan
Running time: 1 hr 42 min