Shocking Secrets Revealed in ‘Wicked Little Letters’ – Too Late or Perfect Timing?

There is no shortage of reasons for women everywhere to vent their frustrations through colorful language. It requires no justification, and can even add a bit of spice to life. If you need a film to drive this point home repeatedly, like a profanity-filled public service announcement promoting freedom of speech, the breathlessly comedic British period film “Scandalous Little Notes,” featuring Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley and directed by Thea Sharrock, is ready to do so with its intermittently hilarious yet ultimately overdone jest.

The movie boldly states at the beginning, “This is truer than you might believe,” and indeed, a scandal involving malicious letters during the post-World War I era in a British coastal town transformed foul language into a national sensation. Someone has been dispatching exquisitely cruel, obscenity-ridden, anonymous letters (the phrase “crafty old harlot” is the tamest this publication can repeat) to the inhabitants of Littlehampton, with the majority of them ending up at the home of devout spinster Edith Swan (Colman). While her distressed mother (Gemma Jones) sobs and her domineering father (Timothy Spall) fumes with anger, and as the police dawdle, Edith puts on a brave front, savoring the sympathy she garners in a worryingly faithless postwar society.

Everyone, of course, assumes the sender is Edith’s next-door neighbor (and former friend), Rose Gooding (Buckley), a lively, barefoot, widowed Irish immigrant and single mother, who is eventually arrested and put on trial for libel without any evidence beyond her lower-class status and her ever-present audacity. (As Rose astutely points out to the authorities, “Do I look like the anonymous type to you?”) The situation doesn’t sit well with the policewoman Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan), who must rebel against her sexist peers to take matters into her own hands and ensure justice is served.

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Despite “Scandalous Little Notes” suggesting a mystery surrounding the identity of the letter-writing vulgarian until halfway through, there isn’t any real mystery. Johnny Sweet’s thin script eventually shifts to routine caper tactics to catch the offender. It’s not a spoiler to say that hypocrisy is central to the crime, as the movie’s simplistic dichotomy — liberation is good, suppression is bad — makes it apparent from the start. The saving grace is that Buckley, Colman, Spall, and Vasan are skilled enough to allow nuanced character development to emerge amidst the generic quirkiness.

Even in a role that seems like a caricature, Buckley remains engaging, despite her dialogue laden with expletives seeming to tease a scandalous musical number. Colman’s masterful use of facial expressions — when the camera lingers long enough to capture them — hints at a more intriguing, complex character study to be examined: a self-deceiver shattered by both overt and internalized misogyny.

The film moves briskly, enhanced by aptly atmospheric sets and costumes, and the sharp performance of Eileen Atkins (as one of Edith’s friends). However, Sharrock’s direction is notably segmented, intent on keeping the ridiculous parts ridiculous and the serious parts serious. There’s an overreliance on extracting shock value from the letters’ language, while assuming a knowing agreement about the underlying message (women’s liberation!).

Similar to the genre of naughty village eccentricity that brought us “Calendar Girls,” “Scandalous Little Notes” offers benign entertainment with its take on a true story of suppressed emotions, comical expression, and righteous action. But given the lively elements at play, it’s disappointing that we’re so far from the golden age of Britain’s Ealing Studios and its unique comedies like “Passport to Pimlico,” “Whiskey Galore,” and “The Ladykillers,” where quirkiness, the genuineness of human spirit, and dark humor were more seamlessly blended.

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