Little Voice
Director: Mark Herman. Cast: Jane Horrocks, Brenda Blethyn, Michael Caine, Ewan McGregor, Jim Broadbent, Amanda Badland, Philip Jackson. Screenplay: Mark Herman (based on the play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice by Jim Cartwright).

Rarely does such a slight project as Little Voice contain so many uncomfortable and tendentious undercurrents. The film follows a character named Little Voice (that's LV to everyone around her) who over the course of an hour and a half transforms from the shy waif who bats around the attic of her mother's house into a more confident, expressive young woman who uses a freak talent to generate real emotional and psychological growth. Like many romantic comedies, Little Voice wants you both to believe it and not to: the scenes between LV and her monstrous mother have a sort of kitchen-sink reality (not to mention a bluestreak of crude language and a truly unsettling vein of abusive parenting), but the whole project exists defiantly in a sort of fairy-tale land where Judy Garland and dear old Dad are the muses who make a butterfly out of a quiet, uncomfortable girl who barely disturbs the air when she tip-toes through a room. The film works adequately as the sort of fable it means to be, essentially a coming-out story that has barely anything to do with sex. Then again, the slightest amount of pressure when applied to Little Voice utterly collapses the picture, which already groans and squeaks a little beneath its own outrageous contrivances and needless dollops of melodrama.

Okay, some explaining. The bizarre gift conferred on Jane Horrocks' LV is that she can mimic with uncanny versatility and accuracy the various vocal stylings of her favorite singers: Garland, Dietrich, Bassey, Merman, Monroe—the list goes on. The reason these singers and their voices are her pride and joy is because they were her deceased father's favorite performers, and LV's way of remembering and honoring him is to play his old records and sing along as though her odes and testimonies of affection were reaching Dad himself. Finally, the impetus she has for paying these wondrous tributes, as well as for being such a skittish, silent sylph all the rest of her days, is that she now has to share a home with her mother, Mari, played with maximum drag-queen panache by Secrets & Lies' Brenda Blethyn. If Little Voice is indeed a fairy tale, Mari is its big bad wolf, as vulgar and ostentatious as LV is painfully demure.

Nor can their relationship be summarized as a mere case of oppostie personalities sharing close quarters. Mari—and the film deserves credit for making this clear—is actively antagonistic to her daughter, an abusive parent of the sort who raises no fists but inflicts indelible hurt. Mari's body has begun to sag on her, despite the most liberal application of cosmetics, and her best pal is an ungainly, quiet woman across the street who, like LV, only survives around Mari because she does not attempt any words in edgewise. She is not above denigrating her daughter or insulting her to give her own flagging ego a boost, and though writer-director Mark Herman clearly writes for and elicits out of Blethyn a rip-roaring comic performance, it is simultaneously (and intentionally) an ugly, disquieting one.

Two unrelated events provide the catalysts by which LV begins to share her talent with the world and make small baby-steps in the inevitable process of leaving her mother's lair—though this sentence reveals nothing, because Little Voice does not follow the wholly predictable arc along which it seems destined to unfold. One of these world-changing occurrences is the installation of a phone: lest the symbolic value go unremarked, a phone of course is the apparatus for making one's voice heard, even at long distances. Nonetheless, it is not the telephone itself that elicits a reaction from LV but the equally hesitant, skittish individual who helps install it. This chap's name is Billy, he spends most of his time tending to a beloved flock of homing pigeons (so we know right away what a gentle and caring soul he is), and he is played by Ewan McGregor in an utterly humble, winningly furtive performance that reminds us what a proficient and wide-ranging body of work this exciting actor has cobbled together in just a few years' time. Blethyn gets off some of her best lines parodying the total silence in which Billy and LV exist even when trembling bashfully in one another's presence, and you cannot help but root for these two gentle spirits to hit it off.

The other major development in LV's life is the arrival of sleazoid talent manager Ray Say (Michael Caine) into her mother's boudoir. While satisfying the voracious Mari on the living room couch one night, Ray hears LV doing one of her impersonations and is immediately aware of what a bankroll she could provide to his seedy "career" as a manager and scout. Ironically, it is Little Voice herself who gives all the other principals in the film their own voices, since she substantiates Ray's claim to be a class-A recruiter of talent, she provides Mari with a surefire topic of conversation by which to entice Ray's continuing attention, and she finally engenders in Billy the desire and the capability to pipe up to a friendly ear that doesn't belong to a bird.

So this all sounds friendly and pleasurable enough, right? For the most part it is, but there are two deep rills of unanswered questions that run through Little Voice that increasingly detract from our sympathy with the picture and our alignment with its heroine. One of these is the strange scenario of watching a young girl sing songs like "Hey Big Spender" and "Falling In Love Again" only when she is able to conjure a visible hallucination of her father's image, or else directing them to the image of him that hangs on her wall. A lot of these songs have nothing to do with seeking affection but actually express sexual come-ons and appetites. I was increasingly unsure about how to take Dad's presents and the obvious line of vision established between LV and her ghostly pop during all of her routines. When Ray asks LV, then dressed in a nightgown and sitting on her bed, what could possibly have made her father happier than to hear a concert of all his favorite love songs as sung to him by his daughter, the questionable connotations of LV's behavior leapt immediately to the foreground—particularly because Ray is such a degenerate and invariably brings out the tawdriest possible valences in every sound he utters.

Even more injurious to Little Voice, however, or at least more of an obstacle to accepting the film at face value, is the essential congruence between Ray's manipulation of Little Voice and the film's front-and-center positioning of Horrocks. The actress herself does all of her own singing, and the original play on which this film is based was written for Horrocks by a friend who wished to showcase her astonishing vocal gifts. The rest of Horrocks' performance is adequate and at times even affecting, but she is essentially playing a gypsy moth, thus allowing her to find one note of utter, visceral anxiety and hold it for scene after scene. Clearly, it is her own performance ability that not only drives her performance but is the sole raison d'Ítre of Little Voice as both play and film. There is no reason for this story to be told, and no real ideas or effects being generated, except to make some money off of Horrocks' skillful impersonations, which is not too far removed in concept from the way Ray throws LV out on stage in the interest of a quick buck.

Obviously the central disparity lies between Horrocks' active participation in these projects and LV's reluctant shoe-horning before the microphone. Still, as the increasingly ramshackle screenplay makes evident—the plot eventually comprehends a near-death experience, a bitter show-down between rivals on stage, and the abruptly shuttled-along romance between Horrocks and McGregor—no one is quite sure what Little Voice is about or what the audience should come home with besides a positive impression of some game character actors and a singular karaoke-ready talent. There's nothing really wrong with Little Voice, but besides skirting its darker implications, it's flimsy and heavily padded enough to recall the summer's ultimate duo of featherweight trifles, Six Days, Seven Nights and How Stella Got Her Groove Back. As in those two projects, the creative team behind this one had the sense to cast charismatic actors and not too intrude too much on the material; it's just that this material needs some kind of intrusion to hold together as anything more than a cumulus cloud: bright and puffy, but fundamentally shapeless and evaporated before you know it. Grade: C

Academy Award Nominations: Best Supporting Actress: Brenda Blethyn
Golden Globe Nominations and Winners: Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Jane Horrocks Best Actor (Musical/Comedy): Michael Caine Best Supporting Actress: Brenda Blethyn
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