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TIFF ’23 Review: ‘Wicked Little Letters’ passionately expresses its opinions

‘Wicked Little Letters’ is an uproarious thriller that centres on a severed friendship and inept police work

A scene from ‘Wicked Little Letters’
A scene from ‘Wicked Little Letters’ courtesy of TIFF
A scene from ‘Wicked Little Letters’ courtesy of TIFF

‘Wicked Little Letters’ is an uproarious thriller that centres on a severed friendship, inept police work and letters not for the faint of heart.

“Sticks and stones may break bones, but names will never hurt me.” It’s an adage we’re taught as children, but it’s very rarely true. Being called terrible names, particularly on an ongoing basis, can be incredibly hurtful, whether one chooses to show it or not. It’s easy for everyone to say, “Ignore it,” but even if you try, there’s that little voice that wonders if there’s some truth to the insults — otherwise, why would they keep saying it? In Wicked Little Letters, a woman receives a number of abusive notes by mail, prompting the small town to persecute their newest loudmouth.

Edith Swan (Olivia Colman) is widely considered a spinster, though few people say it to her face. She lives in her parents’ home, still ruled by her father’s (Timothy Spall) iron fist. A little light enters her life when Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley) moves in next door, having left Ireland to give her daughter a better life following her husband’s death during WWI. She’s loud, crass and opinionated — qualities Edith could use in her life. But a sequence of events sours the friendship and shortly after, Edith begins receiving offensive letters. Rose’s carefree use of profanity makes her the number one suspect, but a young policewoman (Anjana Vasan) is convinced the true culprit is still out there.

If someone has delicate ears, they may find themselves upset by the amount of swearing in this picture. But Buckley incorporates it so naturally in her speech alongside her Irish accent and Colman still sounds charming even when she’s cursing up a storm. It’s difficult to even keep up with the cussing spewed in the letters, though there is something unrefined and immature about its nature. Nonetheless, this is a movie about profanity and they don’t hold any punches — there’s no expletive too taboo, and they are strung together in ways that are both creative and staggering.

For those who can handle it, the film is hilarious while also providing subtle commentary on women’s rights at the time. Rose is targeted because she drinks, enjoys herself and is living with a man who is not her daughter’s father. The policewoman is a glorified tea fetcher and note taker, in spite of her obvious competence compared to her colleagues. Edith’s father treats her like a child and servant, depending on the satisfaction he requires in the moment. Unsurprisingly, he’s threatened by a self-possessed woman like Rose and the influence she could have on his daughter.

The truth about the letter scandal is not difficult to determine, but that doesn’t take anything away from how entertaining the whodunit is or the absolute joy gained from watching the incredible performances.

Wicked Little Letters had its world premiere in the Special Presentations programme at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Read other reviews from the festival.

Director: Thea Sharrock
Starring: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley and Timothy Spall

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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