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Wicked Little Letters Review: Witty British Comedy

Olivia Colman gasps at a neighbour who's shouting swear words to her in the film Wicked Little Letters

Thea Sharrock’s Wicked Little Letters is a witty British comedy that overcomes its narrative and tonal woes.

In the age of social media, it’s strange to think that the language we see now was deemed radically inappropriate in nature. Saying cuss words could be labelled as an almost criminal offence, where the punishment would be enough to ruin your reputation and social life in ways we can’t begin to imagine. Nowadays, swearing matches are a dime a dozen on social media as we routinely fall into bitter arguments or ease it into our vocabulary in more desensitising ways. We may be more used to the “F-Bomb” being dished out to us today, but what if we got the same treatment at a time when smartphones and social media were not even in the foreseeable future of human evolution? Thea Sharrock’s Wicked Little Letters is a witty mystery comedy that dives into social conformity and the power behind the harshness of human language

Wicked Little Letters follows Edith Swan (Olivia Colman, of Empire of Light), a religious woman living with her parents in a small British town who begins to get hostile and foul letters from an unknown writer. In following the trail, Edith’s neighbour, Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley), is believed to be the culprit. However, when Rose is sent to prison, more letters begin to be sent around the town. As the police fail to investigate the case further as contradicting evidence makes itself known, a police officer named Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan) begins work on cracking the case. 

From the outset, Wicked Little Letters juggles a lot on its plate as it focuses on three characters and explores how they wander the world around them. Edith Swan lives a quiet life as a catholic woman devoted to God and follows her conservative father’s every word to the letter. Rose Gooding represents the free feminine spirit as she drinks and cusses out any man who gets in her way, regardless of their status in the patriarchy. Gladys Moss is an officer of the law whose idealistic work ethic clashes with the systemic sexism that runs rampant within her place of work. The film bounces from each of these characters in comedic and dramatic ways that run tightly with its juggling of genres. Whether it be comedy, drama or mystery, an undeniable rhythm becomes present in the film’s chaos. 

The undeniable highlight of Wicked Little Letters is the film’s comedy. Here, we have a stacked roster of comedic British greats like Olivia Colman, Timothy Spall and Joanna Scanlan, who all perform their roles wonderfully (as does Jessie Buckley, who holds her own as a comedic force exceptionally well). Having many actors swear at each other is a comedic tactic that can get old fast. However, the script from Jonny Sweet is especially strong at knowing when to dial those moments of profanity back when needed for other sources of humour. As well as harsh language, there’s a playful nature to much of the comedy as Wicked Little Letters takes on a certain cartoonish tone in select scenes. This can especially creep through with the police officers in the town, who each get the film’s more absurdist moment of humour.

Olivia Colman and a woman both gasp, facing an unseen person in the film Wicked Little Letters
Wicked Little Letters (StudioCanal)

Where Wicked Little Letters begins to falter, unfortunately, is when it starts to steer into the dramatic. The arrival of these harshly worded letters opens the floodgates of secrets and insecurities that the film doesn’t choose to present in a purely comedic manner. However, This becomes a problem when these dramatic beats of our lead characters potentially losing their families and everything around them clash with bumbling comedy and the light-hearted tone of its mystery. There’s an undeniable feeling here that creeps in near the end that the film’s tone lacks confidence. It consistently stays in this middle ground where Thea Sharrock wants to direct the movie into the cartoonish route, but the script from Jonny Sweet steers it back into the dramatic. At times, this contrast can be unique, but for much of the film, it does leave it feeling confused. 

Thea Sharrock’s Wicked Little Letters is easily one of the best British comedies in recent years, with consistent laughs and wonderful performances from its cast. While the tonal issues creep in throughout and leave the overall execution feeling a little messy in spots, the film’s pure sense of fun keeps it a joy to watch. The strong language could quickly become a one-note joke that gets old fast, but when you have titans like Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley at your disposal, fears of repetition dissipate, and you’re left with a light but viciously vulgar film. 

Wicked Little Letters was released in cinemas in the UK & Ireland on February 23, 2024, in select US theaters from March 29, and nationwide from April 15. The film will be available to buy and rent from digital platforms in the UK & Ireland on April 8 and available to own on Blu-ray and DVD from May 13.

Wicked Little Letters: Trailer (StudioCanal)
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