sat 20/04/2024

Wicked Little Letters review - sweary, starry film is mostly strange | reviews, news & interviews

Wicked Little Letters review - sweary, starry film is mostly strange

Wicked Little Letters review - sweary, starry film is mostly strange

Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley re-team, this time as warring neighbours

Oh no you didn't: Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley in ' Wicked Little Letters'

A splendid cast struggle to make something coherent out of Wicked Little Letters, the latest film from Thea Sharrock who not that long ago was one of the hottest theatre directors in town.

Sharrock's proven skill onstage with thesps ranging from Benedict Cumberbatch to Kevin Spacey may explain the starry assemblage on view down the line, but no amount of Olivier and Oscar winners - or, in Eileen Atkins, a Dame - can concoct a satisfying whole that often plays like an Alan Bennett caprice run amok: an enquiry into Englishness that trades more than it really needs to in affixing potty-mouthed remarks to people who ought not to be saying such things. 

At first, you assume the sweariest person on view is going to be Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley), an Irish tearaway who shares her Littlehampton home with a Black lover (Malachi Kirby) and a young daughter: this in the 1920s, no less. (Jonny Sweet's wayward script is rooted in fact.) Derided as "a tart on the run", Rose gives as much verbal aggro as she gets, and saves particular aspersions for her prim, God-fearing neighbour, Edith Swan (Olivia Colman), who really would make a good addition to Bennett's vaunted series of Talking Heads. 

One of these supposed embodiments of rectitude who is hypocritical to the core, Edith is a Christian woman with a decidedly mean streak. Taken aback by the fusillade of filthy letters - unsigned, of course - that have been tumbling through her letterbox, Edith points a gleefully accusatory finger at the devil-may-care Rose, who is the sort of unbridled spirit capable of darting naked across town. 

Who actually is penning the poisoned missives? Local cop Gladys (Anjana Vasan) has thoughts of her own, and enters the film with about as much authority as Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing: pillars of the community in this movie exist mainly to be pilloried. (How else to explain the exaggerated supporting turns of such fine actors as Tim Key and Hugh Skinner, who show up mostly to make funny faces?) 

Colman and Buckley played older and younger versions of the same woman several years ago in The Lost Daughter, for which they were both nominated for Oscars, and there's no denying the energy they bring to a shared fractiousness about which one can imagine them both giggling in-between takes. Buckley is a hyperadrenalised presence onscreen or stage - as her Olivier-winning Sally Bowles in Cabaret can attest - and Colman long ago communicated a mischievousness lurking beneath her apparently tight-lipped facade. The Oscar winner's final laugh proves the single most unnerving moment in a film whose tone falters throughout. 

Neither Sweet's screenplay nor Sharrock's direction makes a case for any significant character study or, by way of contrast, for a satire of outdated social conventions. Gladys, for instance, is continually described as "woman police officer", and the gifted Vasan certainly commits to her role, even if the result doesn't land her anywhere near her laureled Stella last year in A Streetcar Named Desire, for which she won Olivier and Evening Standard Theatre Awards. 

A name cast includes Timothy Spall and Gemma Jones onhand as Edith's beleaguered parents, and Joanna Scanlan and Dame Eileen (as in Atkins) playing town busybodies. Distinguished talents all, they demonstrate by their very presence the ongoing need for actors to work. So it is that you find yourself smiling at their onscreen tenacity even as Wicked Little Letters - no relation alas to the American series Big Little Lies - itself mostly leaves you wondering why.

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