Wicked Little Letters: Olivia Colman drops the F-bomb – to tiresome effect

Jessie Buckley and Olivia Colman
Jessie Buckley and Olivia Colman - PARISA TAGHIZADEH

Few things are more inherently British than chocolate-box period dramas – except, perhaps, for baroquely ornate swearing. Wicked Little Letters attempts to combine the two with results that are a bit…well, decorum prevents. The film was inspired by a real-life incident in the West Sussex seaside town of Littlehampton in the 1920s, when police struggled for years to unmask the writer of a series of obscene hand-written notes that were posted to a number of locals.

Prefaced with the jaunty disclaimer “this is more true than you’d think,” the story has been planed down into a marketably Britcom-shaped screenplay by the comedian Jonny Sweet, with Thea Sharrock directing what appears to be a promising cast. Olivia Colman stars as Edith Swan, a pious spinster and the writer’s primary target, and Jessie Buckley is Rose Gooding, Edith’s uncouth Irish neighbour, who as a) an immigrant, b) a single mother and c) an inveterate swearer, instantly becomes the prime suspect.

At first, we get lots of scenes of genteel Edwardian types cursing up a storm against their will – think lots of eye-rolling and nose-holding as the notes are read aloud – which is funny, ish, for a bit. But when the culprit is revealed to the audience after an hour or so, and the film attempts to dig into the psychology behind their reign of terror, it quickly finds itself out of its depth.

The dark dynamic between Colman’s Edith and her controlling father (Timothy Spall) is a poor fit with the whimsical tone elsewhere – imagine watching Midsomer Murders with occasional scenes cut in from a Michael Haneke film – while the heavy-handed immigrant-as-scapegoat motif flattens Buckley’s character into a symbol, reining her in when she should be cutting loose.

Then there is the colour-blind casting: a tonic in so many recent period pieces, from The Personal History of David Copperfield to See How They Run to Bridgerton, but a self-defeating gambit here. If the script is going to make great play of certain supporting characters’ mile-wide xenophobic streaks around Buckley’s Irish character, it then either feels evasive or nonsensical to have the same people not even notice the fact that neither her live-in lover Bill (Malachi Kirby, poorly served) nor the town’s resourceful young WPC (Anjana Vasan, ditto) are white.

Worst of all, even the swearing becomes tiresome, with a certain tweeness quickly creeping in that recalls the sort of sub-sub-Stephen Fry showboating beloved of certain Twitter users (c--kwomble being one of their favourite inventions). When the film finally detonates the C-bomb it treats its arrival like a plot twist, though with the mystery itself by then long exhausted, you may be left feeling an actual plot twist might have been a better idea.

In cinemas from Friday