Woke ‘Wicked Little Letters’ – Clapter: The Movie

Fact-based comedy pushes agenda ahead of compelling story

“Wicked Little Letters” might drag The Critical Drinker out of the multiplex and into the art house.

It’s what would happen if Ken Loach tried to direct a comedy from a script by John Oliver and Hannah Gadsby. Each scene and every line seems shamelessly calculated to draw applause as well as laughter from audience members it expects to be on its wavelength.

WICKED LITTLE LETTERS | Official Trailer (2024)

The story is based on actual scandal that occurred in Littlehampton, England in 1920. The coastal town is depicted as a filthy and crowded maze of fences and clotheslines where chickens wander the streets and a single outhouse services the entire neighborhood.

All that’s missing is Michael Palin skipping along the cobblestones, singing how every sperm is sacred.

Among the inhabitants are spinster Edith Swan (Olivia Colman), who lives a near-cloistered existence with her religiously strict father (Timothy Spall) and ineffectual mother (Gemma Jones). Her father’s near fanaticism has clearly rubbed off on Edith, and she makes every effort to live up to his impossible standards.

No wonder she recoils at the arrival of free-spirited Irishwoman Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley), who is seemingly in gleeful revolt against everything Edith has been raised to accept. She curses like a sailor, drinks like a fish and worst of all enjoys very loud sex with her common-law husband Bill (Malachi Kirby) that disturbs the peace in the adjoining Swan household.

So Edith develops a plan to get rid of her neighbor: she starts sending cruel, profane letters to herself, full of obscene insults and vulgar accusations, and points the finger at Rose being the culprit.

Her scheme seems to work at first, as Rose is arrested and the case becomes a national cause celebre. That is, until police officer Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan) starts to investigate and begins to suspect that Swan has pulled a Jussie Smollett.

The movie opens with a title card letting us know that the story we are about to see “is more true than you think.” That’s just a sly way of letting us know the film makers have taken more than their fair share of liberties with the facts.

It will not surprise anyone to learn that the real Bill Gooding wasn’t black or that the real Gladys Moss wasn’t South Asian (I was indeed surprised, however, to find out that the elaborate invisible ink scheme to expose Swan really did unfold for the most part as it did in the movie).

For that matter, the real Rose Gooding was not actually Irish, but English born and bred. Why the change in nationality? Beyond the fact that actress Jesse Buckley is herself Irish, there seems to have been a need to have made her an immigrant in the movie just to further stack the deck against Edith Swan.

It’s not enough making her a bluenose prude; they have to suggest she’s a xenophobe as well.

And therein lies the major problem with the script. The film makers clearly take joy in exploiting a real-life case for sociopolitical cheap shots. All throughout the film we are reminded constantly of not just the unfairness of the British class system (gee, we’ve never had that hammered to us before, have we?), but of the repressive, sexist, patriarchal etc., nature of English society from a century ago.

Even this atheist grew tired of the film’s potshots against Christianity, and the frequent suggestions that Edith’s behavior can be simply be excused by her domineering father and strict religious upbringing (the real Edith Swan may have in fact been suffering from mental illness).

The film’s Gladys Moss is similarly made into a feminist martyr, surrounded by sexist boors who disparage her abilities and take credit for her work. She herself even feels the need to remind the other characters that she is not Officer Moss but Policewoman Moss, as if the constant bombardment of misogyny has diminished her own sense of self-worth.

Olivia Colman on her latest film ‘Wicked Little Letters’ and why she doesn’t look at anything online

Of all the cast members, only Jones seems aware that she’s playing a real-life person. Nearly every other actor descends to the same broad level as the script with the exception of Anjana Vasan, whose performance consists of simply moving her eyes to one side or the other whenever someone else is speaking.

Even the normally faultless Timothy Spall can’t help giving us a one-dimensional caricature instead of an actual, fully-realized human being.

Every once in a while Colman shows signs of locating the humanity of the real Edith Swan, but each time she is let down by the script’s need to make her into a paperback villain.

Buckley seems to be trying to subvert the film’s intentions by giving an absolutely insufferable performance as Rose Gooding. You actually find yourself nearly sympathizing with Swan every time Gooding shows up, with Buckley screeching and screaming every line, and indulging in every lower-class Irish stereotype imaginable.

The filmmakers obviously wanted to make an analogy between the Swan-Gooding case and modern-day Internet trolls and doxxers. The film’s Edith Swan is an incel before her time, focusing her anger from being repressed at those who are different and are able to indulge themselves freely, when she really should be focusing it at the oppressive social structures and mores that are truly responsible for her sad situation (the way the last scene between Edith and her father plays out, she shows signs of finally realizing this).

Yet the filmmakers should probably step carefully here.

Besides Smollett and other hate-crime hoaxers, the case most resembles the modern-day jeremiad against J.K. Rowling, who has been targeted by online mobs upset at her defense of the rights of women.

These attacks are driven by envy more than anything else, and those making them disingenuously claim she’s the real bully in this situation.

How odd it is that the Rose Goodings of today are also its Edith Swans.

A.A. Kidd is a sessional university instructor in Canada who proudly volunteers for the Windsor International Film Festival. He appreciates classic movies, hard science fiction and bad puns.


  1. It’s this mentality that is leading to the fall of the UK. My advice to anyone planning on living the rest of their lives in the UK – get your burkas and prayer rugs while they’re on sale.

  2. It doesn’t help that Olivia Colman is a woke lunatic, and happens to be one of this movie’s producers.

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