Wicked Little Letters

Maybe my disappointment with this movie was my own fault.  Maybe I was bedazzled by seeing Olivia Colman on the movie posters.  And other great English character actors such as Timothy Spall, Gemma Jones, Eileen Atkins and Joanna Scanlan.  Not to mention rising young Irish talent Jessie Buckley. 

And It’s based on a true story!  You know I love those.  The Brits Do This Kind of Thing So Well and all that.   What could possibly go wrong?  Plenty, as it turns out. 

Edith Swan (Colman) lives with her elderly parents in the English coastal town of Littlehampton.  She’s a classic spinster, too old to hope for marriage or independence and basically a domestic drudge for her parents – a domineering father (Timothy Spall) and a submissive mother (Gemma Jones).  

The one bright spark in Edith’s life is their neighbour, a wild Irish hoyden called Rose (Jessie Buckley), who lives next door with her husband and daughter and goes roistering in pubs and swears and gives cheek to stuffy types.  Edith and Rose start out as friends but fall out over some minor slight.  Edith reverts to mouthing the pious platitudes that mollify her grumpy father, and then she starts getting nasty abusive letters in the post, filled with name-calling and rude imagery.  

The family points the finger at Rose and call the cops on her.  Rose denies sending the letters but she looks the part so she’s arrested and charged and eventually tried and convicted of her alleged crime.  But that’s not the end of the story, nor of the letters, which increase in frequency and volume and soon just about every respectable person in Littlehampton starts getting them.   

I googled the true story and I have to say that apart from compression of the time-frame, this movie version does stay faithful to the facts – sort of.  I was surprised to learn that it was indeed a young female police officer who defied the scorn and dismissiveness of her male superiors to start the ball rolling to get at the truth.

In Letters this character is played by a young black actor (Gladys Moss).  Black actors take the parts of Rose’s husband, some of the village folk and also, and more problematically, of the judge. 

I have no problem with colourblind casting per se, but in a period piece like this it should not create jarring elements.  For instance, the young WPC is treated disdainfully by the male cops because she’s a woman, but curiously, given the time and place, not because she’s black.  Not even behind her back. 

It’s the same with Rose, who’s persecuted because she’s poor and Irish and defiantly unladylike, but the fact that she’s living with a black man who’s evidently not the father of her daughter (a pretty, pale English rose of a child) doesn’t come into it. 

As for the judge, it is simply beyond belief that a black man could rise to this elevated office in a society such as Littlehampton at that time.  

Letters goes to great lengths to get the period details right – costuming, housing, interior layout, streetscapes and so on.  But if you are going to have a crack at the narrow-minded attitudes of this time and place, why choose only class and ethnic prejudices and ignore the big one, race? 

I say the movie gets the period details right, apart from attitudes to race.  But there’s another aspect rife with anachronism, and that’s the language.  Letters is notorious, even among those who liked it, for the sheer volume and frequency of foul language.  It’s there not only in the letters but more broadly, characters are forever using words such as m**therf**ker and c**ks**ker, as if these were commonplace at the time.  I just don’t buy it.  Not for these small-town, church-going, working class and lower middle class people. 

I wondered how many times you could get a laugh from a prim and proper character suddenly dropping the f-bomb.  For me the novelty wore off very quickly, but I must admit this was not the case for my companion or for most of the people at our screening. 

In the end I can only agree with the critic who said it was ‘a joyless waste of cast, premise and setting’. 

The main pleasure I got out of it was from doing that thing: what’s he/she been in? 

The twattish young police officer is played by Hugh Skinner, who played the adult Prince William in The Crown.

Gemma Jones, who plays Edith’s mother, was The Duchess of Duke Street and is also in Call The Midwife, the Harry Potter and Bridget Jones movies and Sense and Sensibility.  

Among the townsfolk are Joanna Scanlan, who played the put-upon political minder in The Thick Of It, andEileen Atkins, who you’ll recognise as Ruth, the psychiatrist aunt, in Doc Martin

Jessie Buckley played alongside Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter, an adaptation of an Elena Ferrante story, which is very good and which you can see on Netflix.  She was also in Wild Rose (2018), about a young Glasgow battler who dreams of being a country music star in Nashville.  It too was very good.