© Studiocanal GmbH

Kleine schmutzige Briefe (Wicked Little Letters)
U.K./France 2023

Opening 28 Mar 2024

Directed by: Thea Sharrock
Writing credits: Jonny Sweet
Principal actors: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Timothy Spall, Hugh Skinner, Jason Watkins

Life in the seaside hamlet of Littlehampton, Sussex, England, following the Great War is placid, its women again taking care of hearth and home. Which makes the scandal all the more surprising, and personally provocative. Townsfolk are aghast and the police flummoxed at such infamy occurring under their noses. The anonymous wicked little letters being sent to the residents are increasing in volume and tenor, becoming outrageously profane, and are a national embarrassment. Fired up against their neighbor, Edward Swan (Timothy Spall) wildly waves evidence aimed at his (spinster) daughter Edith (Olivia Colman) while wife Victoria (Gemma Jones) meekly tut-tuts wringing her hands. The local police ears perk up. Must be the foreign newcomer—trash-talking carouser Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley), and her with a young daughter (Alisha Weir) and boyfriend (Malachi Kirby). Constable Papperwick (Hugh Skinner) eagerly trots off to arrest her. Some think the men’s impulsivity too rash, even though friends with Edith, particularly Mabel (Eileen Atkins), Kate (Lolly Adefope), and Ann (Joanna Scanlan). PC Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan) suggests that Chief Constable Spedding (Paul Chahidi) compare handwriting samples; he (condescendingly) reminds her of office hierarchy, knowing one’s place. Gladys instead teams up with Edith’s Christian cardplaying pals; the trial date moves closer. As the puzzle pieces fall into place, a fascinating personality paradox presents itself.

Based on a 1920s incident the letters, main characters, e.g., pious Edith and P.C. Moss, Sussex’s first female constable, and details, e.g., dispatching poison-pen letters was punishable by prison sentences one hundred years ago, are true-to-life. English director Thea Sharrock’s deft treatment of Jonny Sweet’s funny yet bittersweet screenplay effortlessly pivots from comedic cliches to the early twentieth century’s cultural prejudices and bigotry. Quips and jokes in the dialogue alleviate the chauvinistic and misogynistic rhetoric of that period. For perspective, WW I ended in 1918 and limited suffrage was given to women in England, yet another ten years passed until the Equal Franchise Act.

The cast is brilliant. Production values are laudable: Ben Davis cinematography (filmed on location), Melanie Oliver editing, Fabrice Spelta art direction, Shonagh Smith set decoration, and Charlotte Walter costumes. Do not get lost in the semantics, otherwise you might miss the more important issues involved, even the atypical relationship at its core. Kleine schmutzige Briefe is a devilishly shrewd, delightfully vivacious, and movingly memorable good watch. (Marinell Haegelin)

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