Wicked Little Letters review – a depressing, obvious, clunky waste of a stellar cast

<span>Frustrating … Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley in Wicked Little Letters.</span><span>Photograph: Parisa Taghizadeh</span>
Frustrating … Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley in Wicked Little Letters.Photograph: Parisa Taghizadeh

Unconvincing, unfunny and bafflingly heavy-handed, this shrill non-comedy fails to say anything entertaining or historically insightful about the true story of the Littlehampton poison-pen scandal of 1923. It’s a terrible waste of a stellar cast, headed by Olivia Colman, although the simple aggregation of everyone’s acting talent does raise the film a bit.

Colman plays Edith Swan, a prim-and-proper spinster in the curtain-twitching world of 1920s Littlehampton, always congratulating herself on her Christian rectitude; she lives with grumpy elderly dad (Timothy Spall) and glowering mum (Gemma Jones). Edith has a problem neighbour with whom she’s fallen out after initial friendship: this is Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley), a woman from Ireland who cheerfully likes drinking and swearing. So when Edith starts getting bizarre, obscene unsigned letters through the letterbox – and then more and more people start getting them, too – Rose is in the frame, the outsider that all these xenophobes dislike anyway. But policewoman Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan) thinks there’s more to it.

The wacky-sweary Carry On tone is jarringly misjudged, going for broad laughs without seeing the strangeness and sadness of it all. And the film can’t really work as a whodunnit because the big reveal is obvious from the outset. The police inspector even has an uncomfortable line acknowledging that Moss’s prime suspect had actually occurred to him too but that handwriting evidence is useless (Really?). And when the culprit is finally taken away to prison, the film implies that this is a moment for joyfully emancipated swearing and defiance; another deeply naive and implausible moment. It’s a depressing seaside postcard of a film.

• Wicked Little Letters is released on 23 February in UK and Irish cinemas, and on 21 March in Australian cinemas.