Friday December 4, 1998
Everyone calls her L.V., short for Little Voice, because she's so quiet her vocal powers barely exist at all. Shy to the point of being reclusive, she lives with her mother in a depressed seaside town in England's North, sticking close to a crumbling apartment where she obsessively plays hits from her late father's record collection.
Yet it is the conceit of "Little Voice" that inside this dull and unpromising exterior lies an incredible jewel. For L.V. has somehow absorbed all those records and can, when so moved, turn out astonishingly accurate copies of the vocal stylings of legends like Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe and Shirley Bassey, renditions that sound frighteningly identical to the real thing.
British actress Jane Horrocks plays Little Voice, and it is a transfixing, tour de force performance. Even given that the original 1992 London stage hit "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice" was written by playwright and friend Jim Cartwright specifically for Horrocks and her startling capacity to mimic, how much she does with the role is continually surprising.
An elfin, bird-like actress with an endearing, twitchy manner, Horrocks is known to American audiences primarily as the angry, bulimic daughter in Mike Leigh's "Life Is Sweet" and for a recurring role as PR woman Bubble in the Brit TV hit "Absolutely Fabulous." As much as her singing, it's her skillful acting that turns L.V. into a strange, unnervingly spooky presence.
Yet, just as the ethereal Little Voice is surrounded by the dross and rubbish of life on the skids, so Horrocks' delicate work finds itself in a willfully excessive film that wants nothing so much as to force its brashness down our throats. Written and directed by Mark Herman (who did the uneven "Brassed Off"), "Little Voice" gets solid work out of both Michael Caine and Ewan McGregor, but it's often as offputting as Horrocks' performance is heartbreaking.
The main victim of the film's determination to glory in crudeness is actress Brenda Blethyn. Coming off her nuanced, Oscar-nominated performance in Leigh's "Secrets & Lies," it's especially difficult to endure Blethyn's abrasive work as aging party girl Mari, L.V.'s mother.
Locked in a war of nerves and words with her silent daughter, and with the equally closemouthed Sadie (Annette Badland, also of the London stage production) as her only confidant, Mari is concerned only with her alcohol-fueled sexual escapades.
Her latest love interest is Ray Say (Caine), an on-the-skids agent, complete with a flashy convertible and personalized plates, who likes to think of himself as "agent to the stars, king of cabaret, maker of miracles." He's a man who grandly claims to have known Monroe, but confesses if pressed that Matt, the singing bus conductor, is the Monroe in question.
Though he's hampered, as everyone except Horrocks is, by "Little Voice's" crass, hectoring tone, Caine does a poignant job as the man who hopes to make a fortune out of L.V.'s skills. Memorable is his astonished look when he first hears her as Judy Garland doing "Over the Rainbow," as is the pep talk he gives L.V. when he's trying to convince her to take her private world public.
Also doing strong work despite the odds are Jim Broadbent as Mr. Boo, the oddly named failed comic and local impresario, and the always impressive McGregor.
Usually seen in energetic, high octane roles like "Velvet Goldmine" and "Trainspotting," McGregor is convincingly well-modulated as the timid Billy. He's another nervous non-communicator, more at home up on the roof with his pigeons than downstairs with people. Billy becomes a prime candidate to share misfit love with L.V. when he shows up with his father to hook up telephone service for the garrulous Mari.
Given that it's built around Horrocks' role-playing abilities, "Little Voice" couldn't exist without giving her the chance to demonstrate what she can do on stage. The transformation, when it comes, transcends all thoughts of gimmickry and becomes a genuine astonishment. It can't completely redeem the movie, but it certainly is one heck of a show.
Little Voice, 1998. R for language and brief nudity. A Scala production, released by Miramax Films. Director Mark Herman. Producer Elizabeth Karlsen. Executive producers Nik Powell, Stephen Woolley. Screenplay by Mark Herman, based on the play by Jim Cartwright. Cinematographer Andy Collins. Editor Michael Ellis. Costumes Lindy Hemming. Music by John Altman. Production design by Don Taylor. Supervising art director Jo Graysmark. Set decorator John Bush. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. Jane Horrocks as Little Voice. Michael Caine as Ray Say. Brenda Blethyn as Mari. Jim Broadbent as Mr. Boo. Ewan McGregor as Billy.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun