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‘Wicked Little Letters’

Wicked Little Letters is a frothy comedy film that has been heavily trailed for months. As in the trailer, the comedy relies on the assumption that prim and proper 1920s characters using unexpectedly foul language is inherently funny. I think that it is, to a point, though perhaps not funny enough to support a whole film.

To my mind, the stand-out feature was Isobel Waller-Bridge’s score, which lifted the whole production, imbuing it with a sense of drama and emotion even when the script was a bit lacking. Waller-Bridge’s compositions also underpinned some fantastic musical/visual puns that were among the funniest bits of the film.

Unfortunately, the plot is a bit of a letdown. It concerns some expletive-laden poison-pen letters received by Olivia Colman’s character, and whether the police have correctly identified the sender, Jessie Buckley’s character—if not, who might it be? The answer is practically telegraphed from that start, so tension doesn’t really build, and the case is solved on-screen peculiarly early in the film in any case.

Now, I’m hardly the morality police, but allow me a paragraph on the wonky social ethics of the piece. I was irked. The film is written in such a way that we’re clearly supposed to judge the central characters with modern eyes, and sympathise with Buckley’s less buttoned-up, more ‘modern’ character who is harshly judged by the standards of the time. But despite the film being vaguely about the ridiculousness of the patriarchal society of the 1920s, we don’t see the main patriarch (Timothy Spall’s character) suffer any comeuppance for behaviour that—by modern standards—is domestic abuse. The script comes perilously close to making a joke of bullying and controlling familial relationships. It’s as though we’re invited to judge the women by 2020s standards but the men by 1920s standards. It’s uncomfortable.

But look, this is light comedy tosh: I don’t think we’re expected to think that hard. Let’s just laugh at Olivia Colman swearing a bit more. Most of the characters are two-dimensional clichés, as I suppose we ought to expect, and there are a few laughs along the way. Come for the chuckles, stay for the music. It’s fine.

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