‘Wicked Little Letters’ sends a mixed message

If you’re among the many filmgoers who know that a movie starring either Olivia Colman or Jessie Buckley represents time extremely well spent, the prospect of the two of them together in “Wicked Little Letters” should snap you to attention.

They’ve appeared before in the same film without sharing scenes: “The Lost Daughter” (2021) cast the two actresses as the same woman at different ages, an academic who abandons her family and lives to regret it. The new film, written by Jonny Sweet and directed by Thea Sharrock, lets them play off each other as neighbors in a dingy English seaside town in 1920, one prim and pious, the other a bawdy hoyden.

At the very least, watching Colman and Buckley on the same screen is an improvement over the earlier film. It’s the only improvement, but you may not mind.

Based on an actual historical incident, “Wicked Little Letters” is an art-house audience pleaser that slaps a veneer of tea-cosy classiness over cartoonish characters and changing social values. The movie is good fun and also surprisingly obvious — a slapstick comedy of manners that hints, but only hints, at darker human urges.

Colman is Edith Swan, a middle-aged church lady who still lives with her blunderbuss of a father (Timothy Spall) and mild-mannered mother (Gemma Jones) in a working-class neighborhood of Littlehampton. Buckley is Rose Gooding, freshly arrived from Ireland with a young daughter (Alisha Weir), a new boyfriend (Malachi Kirby) and a love for a good pub crawl that makes her a local scandal. Someone has been sending anonymous poison-pen letters to Edith — letters written in language so outrageously, descriptively obscene that it’s practically an art form — and suspicion quickly falls on the foul-mouthed Rose. For her part, Rose sensibly asks why she’d bother to write to Edith when she could just say the same things to her face if she wanted to.

“Wicked Little Letters” early on makes sure the audience knows Rose isn’t the culprit — she’s a tough but loving mother, for one thing, and a free-spirited hoot, for another. But who is? The screenplay spreads the potential guilt around a small group of suspects, including Edith’s friends and fellow whist players, a pleasurably comic trio of ladies bold (Lolly Adefope), bony (Eileen Atkins) and bossy (Joanna Scanlan). Also on the case is Woman Police Officer Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan), who in addition to following her eminently logical hunches has to endure demeaning treatment from her fellow officer (Hugh Skinner) and chief constable (Paul Chahidi), both of them prats of the first order.

“Wicked Little Letters” manages the paradoxical trick of being both broadly played and finely acted, the first due to a director intent on underlining every action with a heavy Sharpie and the second to a cast that colors in the outlines of their characters with finesse, depth and life. If there’s a villain here, it’s the father, whose tradition-bound misogyny and emotional abuse of his daughter are given real malice by Spall. Race-blind casting in some of the roles has the occasional effect of kicking a viewer out of the movie’s time period, but without it, we’d lose Vasan’s delightful portrayal of the dogged detective, her eyes like signal flares alerting us to every clue.

And the two leads are spectacular. Buckley plays a woman with a big heart, a loud mouth and no filter, but she also invests Rose with a subtle terror behind the feistiness — the knowledge that she could go to jail and lose her child forever. Colman uses every trick in her considerable arsenal to let us see that Edith — sweet, repressed, vain Edith — is a far more complicated character than she appears. As for who wrote the Littlehampton letters, you may or may not guess before the filmmakers spill the beans in the third act. But you may also not be prepared for the glimpses of psychological damage and thwarted rage that accompany the revelation — glimpses that might be chilling if the director of “Wicked Little Letters” had any idea what to do with them.

R. At area theaters. Language — lots of language — and sexual material. 100 minutes.

Ty Burr is the author of the movie recommendation newsletter Ty Burr’s Watch List at tyburrswatchlist.com.

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