Producers: Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin, Ed Sinclair, Olivia Colman and Jo Wallett   Director: Thea Sharrock   Screenplay: Jonny Sweet   Cast: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Anjana Vasan, Joanna Scanlan, Gemma Jones, Malachi Kirby, Lolly Adefope, Eileen Atkins, Timothy Spall, Hugh Skinner, Paul Chahidi, Jason Watkins, Alisha Weir, Richard Goulding, and Tim Key  Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Grade: C

A poison pen spree that roiled the small West Sussex town of Littlehampton in 1920 is the inspiration for Thea Sharrock’s period piece, which aims to be a sprightly, if dark, comedy but muffs up the promising material.  Despite a fine physical production and a cast of wonderful actors, “Little Wicked Letters” remains earthbound, narratively clumsy and tonally off.

Olivia Colman, playing things too broadly with lots of mugging, is Edith Swan, a spinster living with her parents, brutish despot Edward (Timothy Spall, distorting his face into paroxysms) and elderly, docile Victoria (a simpering Gemma Jones).  Their household, marked by Edward’s absolute control and Edith’s prim sense of religious decorum and daughterly obedience, is upset when Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley, too often more shrill than likably outrageous), a loud, brash, foul-mouthed Irish newcomer, moves in next door with her lover Bill (Malachi Kirby) and her daughter Nancy (Alisha Weir), whose father, Rose claims, was a soldier killed in the Great War, and who yearns to play the guitar, much against her mother’s wishes.

The two families sometimes annoy one another since they share a thin wall and a garden with the facilities, but Edith makes a point of befriending Rose and trying to teach her proper etiquette, including toning down her language, seeing her, it appears, as a kind of reclamation project.  But things go south between them after someone calls the authorities to check on Nancy’s welfare.  Soon after Edith begins to receive anonymous letters filled with vitriol and scatological accusations.  Rose is naturally the prime suspect, and eventually at Edward’s prodding Edith contacts the local constabulary.  On the basis of flimsy evidence she’s remanded to prison to await trial, given that she can’t pay the court-determined bail. 

But other ladies in the town—elderly, opinionated Mabel (Eileen Atkins), oddball pig farmer Ann (Joanna Scanlan) and congenial postal worker Kate (Lolly Adefope)—though whist-playing partners of Edith, think what’s happening to Rose is unfair and bail her out.  At the same time officer Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan), though unbraided by her chauvinistic superiors on the force, Chief Constable Spedding (Paul Chahidi) and Constable Papperwick (High Skinner), to mind her place in the hierarchy, undertakes to investigate the case herself, and enlists the women in an attempt to trap the real perpetrator.

The inevitable trial, featuring a nasty prosecutor (Jason Watkins) and sympathetic defense counsel (Richard Goulding), looks bad for Ruth as secrets about her past are revealed and handwriting evidence is deemed unreliable despite its importance.  But the efforts of Moss and her intrepid helpers—and a trick involving invisible ink—eventually save the day. 

A caption at the end of the movie says that the story of Edith and Rose has remained unknown “until now,” but that isn’t true—Oxford University Press published Christopher Hilliard’s “The Littlehampton Libels: A Miscarriage of Justice and a Mystery about Words in 1920s England” in 2017.  But the book isn’t mentioned here: sole screenplay credit is given to comedian Jonny Sweet (who also has a cameo as an intrusive reporter).

But perhaps “blame” is the better word.  Sweet can’t be criticized for the fact that the culprit is revealed at the halfway point: the story wouldn’t work at all unless it was divided between a mystery and a takedown.  But this is no “Vertigo,” and there’s really not much suspense in the first hour, nor—as it turns out—much cleverness in the second.  More problematic is that Sweet’s treatment in neither half is especially funny.  The big joke is the eruption of foul language, mostly in the mouths of women, in such a supposedly decorous society, and frankly it’s a gag that gets old quickly. 

Other attempts at humor fall flat, the snide remarks between the two male constables coming across as egregiously laugh-free.  Of course, they’re meant to contribute to a serious point about the subjection of women at the time—a matter raised both in the policemen’s attitude toward Moss and Edward’s verbal abuse of Edith, as well as Ruth’s mistreatment by all authority figures—but that doesn’t explain why the camaraderie of the ladies in the second half of the narrative, despite the presence of such able actresses as Atkins and Scanlan, barely registers.  And while Vasan is agreeably deadpan as the disrespected but determined cop, she, like Kirby who’s equally understated (a virtue in a film whose cast Sharrock overall encourages to overstatement), is somewhat hobbled by the color-blind casting, which in the case of a period film like this, tends to overemphasize the desire for diversity at the expense of plausibility (as well as historical accuracy).

In contrast to the narrative action, the visual background is impressive, with Cristina Casali’s production design, Charlotte Walter’s costumes and Shonagh Smith’s set decoration nicely caught in Ben Davis’ crisp cinematography.  Melanie Ann Oliver’s editing doesn’t keep the twists of the final hour ideally clear, but Isobel Waller-Bridge contributes a pleasant score.

This isn’t a very satisfying movie, but it might have some benefit if it encourages viewers to seek out a much better one about poison pen letters, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s acerbic 1943 “Le corbeau.”