LANGUAGE! — Wicked Little Letters

William J Hammon
8 min readApr 11, 2024

This past Sunday marked a year since my mother died. For the most part I think I’ve handled things as best as can be managed, but I confess it hasn’t gotten “easier” to deal with the fact that she’s gone. Part of that is because I hadn’t come up with a proper way to honor her legacy.

Film was a big part of her life, a love of which she passed on to me. I’ve mentioned before that we used to have a family tradition of going to the theatre instead of the mall on Black Friday. She watched E.T. as a means to take her mind off the onset of labor pains the day before I was born. She even got to be an extra in a 1979 disaster B-movie called The Death of Ocean View Park. It was filmed at the real defunct Ocean View Park in Norfolk, VA, which was set for demolition, and she got to ride the roller coaster multiple times while they filmed the climactic collapse.

This is why last year, knowing she was about to go, I went to the multiplex and watched The Super Mario Bros. Movie as my way of saying goodbye. It’s why I invoked It’s a Wonderful Life as the overarching theme of the eulogy I wrote for her funeral.

So, I thought, what better way to remember her than by starting a new tradition? If at all possible, every year on April 7, I will go out and watch a film that I think she would have enjoyed. As an adult, it was one of the few bonding experiences we had left. Whenever I went home for a visit, we would always drive about a half hour to a cinema in Pittsford, NY (almost by default the closest theatre after the one in town shut down and became a pharmacy in the early 00s), as it was the only one that had a decent mix of mainstream and indie fare. The prices were sane, it had big, comfy chairs, and we could spend the entire drive home analyzing and grading what we saw (I used letter grades, she used a 1–10 scale).

It was with that in mind that I put off the likes of Monkey Man and The First Omen this weekend and instead took in Wicked Little Letters, a devilishly funny British dark comedy about a real-life scandal in a small English town in the 1920s. It had everything mom would have wanted to see: an easy to follow plot, great performances from fantastic actors like Olivia Colman and Timothy Spall, some lovely scenery, and a sense of humor that she’d never tolerate from me.

In the town of Littlehampton, a devout Christian and spinster named Edith Swan (Colman) receives a series of crude letters from an anonymous source, each one filled to the brim with the sort of vitriol you’d see in a YouTube comments section, though with an occasional touch of elegance that’s above the literacy skills of today’s trolls. Utterly scandalized, Edith is pressured by her ultra-conservative father Edward (Spall), to file a harassment complaint with the police against her neighbor, Rose (Jessie Buckley), as they suspect she’s the one writing them because she and Edith aren’t on good terms. For example, the film opens with Rose emptying a metal bathtub out into the street, which Edith then picks up and cleans out the hair and grime, as the two houses share it as well as an outdoor toilet. Rose’s take-no-shit persona instantly clashes with Edith’s evangelical sense of propriety, and Edward (along with Gemma Jones as his wife Victoria) simply hates her because she’s an Irish immigrant single mother (Alisha Weir as daughter Nancy) with a black boyfriend (Malachi Kirby as Bill).

Rose is arrested based solely on Edith’s complaint with no evidence, and is quickly sent to prison to await trial because she’s too poor to afford bail. This satisfies the close-knit community, especially the misogynistic constables (Paul Chahidi and Hugh Skinner), but junior officer Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan), the only female in the precinct and the daughter of a respected investigator, feels something is amiss, particularly the fact that Rose’s handwriting doesn’t nearly match those of the letters. Gladys’ superiors forbid her from taking part in the case, but the normally by-the-book officer decides to take on some off-the-record detective work, including recruiting Edith’s friends (Joanna Scanlan, Lolly Adefope, and Eileen Atkins) to piece together the facts to clear Rose’s name, or at least ensure that she gets a fair trial rather than a kangaroo court.

The underlying mystery isn’t all that satisfying, as it’s clear very early who’s actually the “Poisoned Pen” writer, and given the relatively uplifting nature of the plot (a nice contrast with the level of the humor) you can tell that the story won’t end on a downer note. On the whole, though, I think it still works because of the fun we have in the journey itself, along with the sly character study on display.

First and foremost, the performances are excellent. Colman is as reliable as ever, and hearing her spout off a series of swears and epithets as she reads the letters only gets funnier as the film wears on. I got flashbacks to her time on That Mitchell and Webb Look and her small role in Hot Fuzz. The range displays from scenes where she has to be as buttoned up as possible to raging through a litany of “fucks” and “whores” would be commendable from any actress, but for someone as great as she is, it’s a comforting reminder of her vast skill. Not to be outdone are Buckley and Vasan, who both bring something truly delightful to their roles. I’ve been a fan of Buckley’s for a while, and the sight of a confident Irish woman telling someone to fuck off while also bending over backwards to be a good parent just stirs up my primal instincts. As for Vasan (who had small roles in Cyrano and Spider-Man: Far From Home), her rigid physicality aids her character immensely, as she can convey everything through her steely gaze and uptight — almost mechanical — stage movements. And not for nothing, but Spall is an excellent antagonist, as his orderly dominance presents itself in some genuinely funny and creepy ways.

The comedy is quite disciplined as well, with a steady pace of escalation without going overboard into farce. I think the most over-the-top moment is an anecdote from Edith about how Rose is a bad neighbor, flashing back to a night of passion with Bill from her family’s perspective, where the couple are so enthusiastic that the crucifix on the Swan bedroom wall shakes, bounces, and nearly falls off. It’s hilarious, but slightly off from the rest of the film’s tone. It’s more than balanced out with the capering of Gladys and the Women’s Whist Club as they conduct their unofficial investigation, though, so you can just laugh at the absurdity when necessary.

There’s also a lot of fun to be had with the amount of cursing certainly, especially given the illusion of what it means to be properly British within the story’s context. This was extra fun for me based on my personal situation, because my mom always hated it when I swore. She’d cuss a blue streak about anything, but the moment I said “fuck,” even if it was in a situation where I agreed with her, she’d give me a verbal backhand for stepping out of line. It was honestly one of the most frustrating parts of our relationship, but I kind of had to admire the consistency. Up until she lost the ability to remember who I was, she’d never miss an opportunity to call me out on my language. Sitting in the theatre, I definitely got a few extra chuckles out of the idea of driving home from Pittsford, talking about the film, and saying something like, “Hearing Olivia Colman scream ‘FUCKING SLUT’ is just hysterical” only for mom to whip her head at me, give me a death stare and say, “Watch you mouth, mister!”

That kind of loving hypocrisy kind of aligns with the sneakily clever feminist messaging of the film, as all three of our leads represent a gender-based repression. For Gladys, it’s occupational, as she’s the first woman officer on the local force, but she’s treated as a glorified secretary, is given no real responsibilities that would put her skills to use, and has to deal with sexist office talk from her bosses like she’s not even in the room. For Rose, her pressure is societal, as she’s got the stigma of being a single mother AND she doesn’t act in what is considered a lady-like fashion, enjoying a smoke and a drink, laughing and talking quite loudly and out of turn, and having no qualms about going outside in nothing but her slip. Even during her trial, a good chunk of her defense rests on the idea that if she really wanted to call Edith a cunt, she’d just do it to her face rather than write letters. It’s easier to just say it rather than hide behind a pen and paper.

And as for Edith, she’s arguably in the worst position of all, under the yoke of familial stagnation. She’s the only one of her siblings to never marry, as Edward drove off the only man who ever sought her hand. She’s browbeaten constantly by his forced temperance because he expects the equivalent of a live-in servant, a good, obedient, “Christian” woman to cater to his every routine, which he believes is his by right of manhood. Edith is never allowed to be her own person, so she must seek whatever outlet she can, be it backhanded compliments, idle gossip, or open contempt for a next door neighbor who’s as uninhibited as she wishes she could be. Through all three main characters we see the core ways in which women are held back — even to this day — without smacking the audience upside the head with heavy-handed exposition explaining it all. The performances and the framework of the story do the job more than adequately.

This isn’t the greatest film of the year by any means. As I said, the plot is very predictable, and it beggars belief how Gladys and the others can spy on Edith without a) being caught, and b) explaining how they know she’ll be in certain places at certain times. It’s also a stretch to try to wave off the idea that handwriting wouldn’t work as a defense in Rose’s trial, especially when it ties so directly into the facts of the case, leading to an odd deus ex machina to resolve the issue where mere logic would do. But this is still a very enjoyable bit of historical escapism, led by some spot on comedy and solid performances from a stalwart cast, giving us a naughty and charming story that’s as cheeky as it is resonant.

Mom would have absolutely loved it.

Grade: B+

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How do you honor your lost loved ones? How much comedic mileage can we actually get out of posh-sounding people cursing up a storm? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!

Originally published at on April 11, 2024.



William J Hammon

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