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TIFF23: Wicked Little Letters Is a Profanity-Filled Delight

Courtesy of TIFF

There’s something freeing in the use of a good swear word at the right moment. It can be piercing, elicit a laugh, or drop a jaw. There’s also a certain freedom in letting loose and allowing whatever comes to mind spill out, especially in a circumstance where swearing is beyond frowned upon. A “fuck” or a “shit” or even a “foxy-ass rabbit fucker” can send a chill through the room. The world is abuzz and it’s that thrill that’s at the center of Wicked Little Letters, a selection of the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. The opening title card warns that “there is more truth than you’d think.” That’s a large promise, but the story that unfolds is bizarre, hilarious, and lost to history…until now.

Despite what the last name of Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley) might imply, she’s not the most stand-up resident of the small seaside town of Littlehampton. It’s the 1920s, so standards for what it means to be a good person are a little different. Rose drinks, dates a Black man (Malachi Kirby), and has a daughter (Alisha Weird) who plays guitar. She also swears…a lot. So when the town’s religious goody-two-shoes, Edith Swan (Olivia Colman), starts receiving profanity-laden letters in the mail, everyone assumes they’re from Rose. With one exception. Police officer Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan), who always introduces herself as “woman police officer,” has her doubts. Her duty as Littlehampton’s sole female police officer is to deal with women’s issues and, despite what her boss believes, Gladys thinks these letters fall in her purview.

Wicked Little Letters is a whip-smart blast. Colman and Buckley are a fabulous sparring duo. Theyappeared together in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, but never shared a scene because they played the same character at different ages. It’s also fairly uncommon for them to be able to show their comedic chops. Colman got to be a little zany in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, but Buckley isn’t nearly as lucky. Her breakout was her role in HBO’s Chernobyl, and her latest theatrical outing was last year’s widely divisive Men. Neither of those films is particularly light, and the shared role in The Lost Daughter had little room for comedy, so Wicked Little Letters feels like both actors are free in a way audiences don’t usually get to see.

Rose and Edith on a beach
Image: courtesy TIFF

It’s not just Colman and Buckley who have the opportunity to pal around. Vasan is an unsung actor who was in one of the better recent Black Mirror installments. She was also the lead in the criminally under-watched We Are Lady Parts. Her straight-man performance as female police officer Moss is excellent. It doesn’t offer the opportunity to be as outlandish as the others are, but it’s a riot nonetheless. The rest of the main cast is rounded out by the women in Edith’s religious club (Lolly Adefope, Joanna Scanlan, and Eileen Atkins). They begin as side characters, but take on a larger role as they join the investigation into the strange, raunchy letters. The letters are initially sent only to Edith, but soon hundreds of letters are terrorizing the small town of Littlehampton. Someone has to put a stop to this madness, so why shouldn’t it be this ragtag group of women?

Wicked Little Letters is a delightful true-crime comedy without the usual murder mystery. Plain and simple, it’s a film showcasing an entire team of people who are at the top of their craft, and reveling in what they’re able to create. It’s a joyful explosion of storytelling. Wicked Little Letters celebrates the oddity of the true story and humans’ need to have a narrative. When the truth of a situation deviates from our expectation, it exposes the prejudices people have. When you look at a cast of characters and make your own guesses about who the writer of these letters is, you’re revealing more about yourself than you likely realize. The film, and many characters in it, play into stereotypes and preconceived notions, but you’ll have to wait until the end to see if you’re right.

Wicked Little Letters is wicked, weird, and wild. The mystery at its core will keep you guessing until the very end, and the increasingly raunchy letters will have you howling with laughter. It’s a crowd pleaser, but only for those old enough not to have to ask too many questions about the content of the letters.

Written by Tina Kakadelis

News Editor for Film Obsessive. Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Carey Mulligan her Oscar.

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