First the letters came in, then they flooded the community. Almost every resident of Littlehampton, a small coastal town in England, received an offensive message in 1920. Most of the slanderous messages have not survived, but those that showed skill in using foul language do. They are a window into another time – a rare glimpse into the “tangles of devotion and resentment, desire and manipulation” that lie beneath the genteel demeanor of a working-class neighborhood, in the words of historian Christopher Hilliard.
Mystery, suspense, gossip and humor characterized the Littlehampton scandal, but that’s not evident in Thea Sharrock’s strange film adaptation. Nasty little letterswhich premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, approaches this slice of history with dull farce, an odd move that abandons its impressive cast and squanders its exciting premise.
Nasty little letters
A forced farce.
Two years later The Prodigal Daughter, Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley reunite as the women at the center of this slanderous mystery. Colman plays Edith Swan, a quiet and repressed eldest daughter who represents a declining politics of female respectability. (Nasty little letters Set in the middle of the suffrage movement.) The portrayal of a pious woman who still lives with her parents (played by Timothy Spall and Gemma Jones) is based on heavy pouting and a stiff posture. Her mannered personality contrasts with that of Buckley, who plays the fast-talking and fiercely independent émigré Rose.
Rose recently moved into Edith’s house next door and a friendship initially develops between the two women. The single mother from Ireland fascinates Edith, a devout Englishwoman whose biggest outing is Sunday church service. Here, too, it depends on politics: Nasty little letters takes place immediately after the Irish War of Independence; The townspeople’s distrust of Rose goes deeper than her gender.
The relationship between Rose and Edith consists of arguments and casual conversations. Edith tries to evangelize Rose, convinced that she can save the wayward migrant’s soul. But there’s also a hint of fascination, even admiration: Edith could never be as bold, confrontational or vocal as Rose. Trying to save Rose becomes entangled in the desire to be herself too.
Nasty little letters attempts to give its scandalous premise a feminist twist by highlighting the difference between the two women. But Jonny Sweet’s script never goes beyond a perfunctory #girlboss energy that weakens and weakens the film’s impact. Sweet also attempts to portray the events in Littlehampton as the stuff of dark comedy, but his monotonous telling of the story lacks bite.
The film begins with Edith receiving another letter filled with creative insults. The Swans are fed up with the harassment and report it to the police. The main officers, a bumbling duo played by Hugh Skinner and Paul Chahidi, vow to arrest Rose, who they believe is the perpetrator. There is no evidence that Rose is the letter writer, but when Gladys (a delightful Anjana Vasan), the only woman on the force, tries to launch a real investigation, she is summarily ignored.
Most of the jokes in Nasty little letters revolve around the struggles of women in the workplace, the nasty nature of letters and the British people’s insults and insults to one another. The comic tone rubs, often awkwardly, against the film’s more serious themes of oppression and misogyny. Edith’s relationship with her family becomes a secondary narrative thread that attempts, with some success, to shed light on her strictness. Her father (Spall) is a tyrant who monitors the behavior of his wife and daughter. There are scenes that could have been jarring – especially given Spall and Colman’s dramatic abilities – but ended with a strange bang.
As a matter of fact, Nasty little letters vacillates between comedy and tragedy without ever really getting going. The film is at its best when it doesn’t try hard to turn every moment into a joke, but rather allows the story some breathing room. Colman and Buckley are usually strong, while Vasan delivers her lines in a hilarious, dry tone reminiscent of their work We are Lady Parts. But it’s an unflattering reflection of the film that not even this cast can keep us interested in the dramas of Littlehampton.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Production companies: StudioCanal, Film4, Blueprint Pictures, South of the River Pictures, People Person Pictures
Cast: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Timothy Spall, Anjana Vasan
Director: Thea Sharrock
Screenwriter: Jonny Sweet
Producers: Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin, Ed Sinclair, Olivia Colman, Jo Wallett
Executive Producers: Anna Marsh, Ron Halpern, Joe Naftalin, Ollie Madden, Daniel Battsek, Farhana Bhula, Diarmuid McKeown, Ben Knight, Thomas Carver, Jonny Sweet, Simon Bird
Cinematographer: Ben Davis
Production designer: Cristina Casali
Costume designer: Charlotte Walter
Editor: Melanie Ann Oliver
Composer: Isobel Waller-Bridge
Casting Director: Jina Jay
1 hour 42 minutes