Published December 1, 1998
Little Voice written and directed by Mark Herman from a stage-play by Jim Cartwright is a wonderful movie up with an absolutely knockout performance by the eponymous Little Voice or LV (Jane Horrocks) up until its climax. After that, it simply doesn’t know what to do with the situation it has created and peters out in cliché and melodrama. As impressive in its way as Miss Horrocks’s performance is that of Brenda Blethyn as her mother, Marie Hoff, relict of the late Francis Hoff (one of her jokes is about the shock she got on her honeymoon when she had to sign the two of them as “Mr and Mrs F. Hoff”). The two live together in the late Mr Hoff’s now defunct record shop in Scarborough, where the daughter lives in her own little world with her dead father’s picture prominently displayed above her bed and his LPs of the great girl-singers of the 1940s to 1960s constantly on the turntable while the mother pursues her twin passions for booze and anything in trousers.
Michael Caine also turns in a boffo performance as Ray Say, the down-at-heels impresario festooned with gold (or not so gold) chains who discovers on romancing mum that LV has become a master-mimic of Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Billie Holliday, Shirley Bassey, and a number of other stars from out of the past. He gets together with the splendidly seedy Mr Boo (Jim Broadbent) to promote LV as a star on the British club circuit and beyond, though LV herself is so timid and mousy that she can barely bring herself to leave the house, let alone to appear on a public stage. Meanwhile she is being shyly and comically romanced by a telephone repairman called Bill (“You must be the famous Telephone Bill,” says her mother), played by Ewan McGregor. Bill keeps racing pigeons and can only see LV when he can find an excuse to extend his cherry-picker outside her bedroom window.
Such symbolism, like that of the birds (LV is “like a friggin’ bird, cooped up in her room all day” says her mother) is rarely obtrusive or annoying, and the movie manages to be constantly funny and occasionally intensely moving. The scenes in which Ray displays an unexpectedly tender and sympathetic side (a side which is most unfortunately, I think, never to be seen again) in persuading LV to perform and that of the performance itself are enough to bring tears to the eyes. Miss Horrocks magically transforms herself from an anorexic and rather plain-looking girl to a beautiful and sexy woman, while the songs—like “I wanna be loved by you” as sung as Marilyn Monroe—are filled with all the unfulfilled longing of the loveless and bereft. This is somehow all the more touching for being, as it were, ventriloquially produced.
It is a profound and moving moment, but the film doesn’t know what to do with it. As in Philip Larkin’s poem, “Love Songs in Age,” the brave but brittle optimism of old-fashioned popular song is made to stand for the real resilience of the human spirit, but we go from that to an ending illuminated only by the romance with Telephone Bill and a much too-familiar confrontation between the neglected daughter and her overbearing mother, who is rather of the opinion that her daughter is as useless as her late husband. I missed not having more to like in the mother and in Ray Say, who are dismissed by the filmmakers at the end in the same way that they themselves dismiss LV when they think they have nothing more to gain from her. Sadie (Annette Badland) and George (Philip Jackson) are also excellent characters but with far too little to do. This is that rare thing, a film that would be much improved if it were half an hour longer.