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Wicked Little Letters Shows Us How to Break the Rules

And yet, it still follows them.

Wicked Little Letters was released this past weekend, and if you haven’t seen it—and judging by the box office numbers—you haven’t—it’s definitely worth your time. That’s especially true if you’re a fan of British humor. This movie feels like it’s got elements of Guy Richie, Edgar Wright, and Monty Python all rolled into a tight, offbeat whodunit that will make you think just as much as it makes you laugh.

Can we all agree that Olivia Coleman is one of the great actors of this generation? After spending most of her career plying her trade on the other side of the Atlantic, she had a breakthrough over here a few years starting opposite Emma Stone in The Favourite. That was the first time I can remember seeing her in anything, and all she’s done since is deliver one powerhouse performance after another. The reason this one is so striking to me is that it’s essentially an absurd comedy. That isn’t to say that you don’t get good acting in those kinds of films. There is often excellent acting in comedies. However, the depth of Coleman’s performance as Edith, the victim of these harassing letters who also lives as a spinster under the oppressive thumb of her abusive father, was so filled with pathos, emotion, and insanity that it stands out mightily in a crowd. Her various facial expressions, the tone of her voice, and the use of body language all create a character who is believable, relatable, and yet still emotional enough to pull you in so you can marvel at the fantastical nature of her personality. It’s stunning stuff.

As stunning as Coleman’s performance was, there was no shortage of fine acting from the rest of the cast. Jessie Buckley plays Rose Gooding, the hot-tempered, foul-mouthed, day-drinking, carousing Irish immigrant who draws everyone’s suspicions as being responsible for the letters due to a previous falling out she had with Edith. What’s great about her performance is that her outer mask of aggressiveness hides the inner vulnerability of a woman who is terrified of losing custody of her young daughter. The duality in the role required superb acting, and Buckley delivered.

Anja Vasan plays Woman Police Officer Gladys Moss. She’s the only one who suspects Rose is innocent, but due to her gender, age, and probably her race, no one, especially her superiors and peers on the police force, believes her. Her dogged determination and her ability to look beyond the emotional aspects of the case and focus on the facts make her the truest story of a hero. Vasan brings an understated quality to the role that somehow adds to that heroism.

Finally, Timothy Spall, as Edith’s abusive father, Edward, who drives the case against Rose, is an over-the-top yet aggressive and angry character who also has a vulnerability in that he doesn’t want his daughter to be a victim. He wants her to take the fight to the oppressor and unwittingly brings out the worst in Edith. It’s another remarkable performance in a film that is full of remarkable performances.

But what about this movie that broke the rules?

Director Thea Sharrock and screenwriter Jonny Sweet crafted a story that was not one that came close to fitting into the traditional idea of a dramatic 3-act structure. The film had an exceptionally long first act that made the story take a long time to get going. Even so, it never felt like it was dragging. Once the story did get going, the pacing picked up markedly, but the pacing never felt unbalanced. The screenplay did ultimately have all of the correct beats, but they didn’t follow the standard time frame as far as what pages they happened on. Normally, that would mean that the story would suffer, but they somehow made that quirk in the screenplay turn into a strength for the film.

The screenplay ended up being dramatic, funny, and irreverent. The screenwriting effectively added thematic components that brought depth to the script, along with the comedy that was more surface-level. All of that combines to create a film that the audience will be able to emotionally engage in as well as laugh at. The screenwriting and the direction took an offbeat route to create a complete film that hits all of the beats it needs to hit.

If you are an aspiring screenwriter or director, Wicked Little Letters is a good example of a screenplay and a movie that breaks the rules but weirdly still follows them.

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