Little Voice (1998): Musical Drama Starring Brenda Blethyn, Michael Caine and Jane Horrocks

Little Voice, writer-director Mark Herman’s musical drama, is based on the play “The Rise and Fall of Little Voice” by Jim Cartwright.

Despite efforts to open the work up for the big screen, it still feels like a stage play, not least because at least half of the story is set indoors, mostly in a shabby nightclub, in which the title character belts out songs by the grand dames of music, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, and even Shirley Bassey.

Set in a poor working-class neighborhood in Sacrborough, “Little Voice” centers on Laura Hoff (Jane Horrocks), a lonely shy girl known as Little Voice, who displays symptoms of anxiety disorders and social phobias (never spelled out clearly enough).
Laura spends most of her time listening obsessively to her deceased father’s extensive collection of recordings by such great singers as Edith Piaf and Judy Garland and impersonating her favorite singers’ performances becomes the only source of joy, an avenue of escape from her dreary life and boozy, temperamental and abusive mother, Mari (Brenda Blethyn).
Almost by accident, her life takes a turn when Billy (Ewan McGregor), a technical operator comes to fix the family’s telephone and begins to show personal interest in her; he finds excuses to return to the house to deliver some informational pamphlets and a tentative friendship begins.
But things really change, when Ray Say (Michael Caine), a manager of third-rate acts who becomes romantically involved with Mari, begins to recognize Little Voice’s magnificent vocal gifts, promising to make her a big star.  To that extent, Ray convinces Mr. Boo (Jim Broadbent) to showcase Little Voice at his seedy nightclub.  It’s there that Laura confronts directly her fears by imagining that her father is in the audience, performing a series of show-stopping numbers to a mostly appreciative crowd. Complications ensue when Laura retreats into her private world and refuses to participate in a second, bigger show to be attended by London’s important press agents.

Losing ideas, and credibility, the film resorts to melodrama of the worst kind in the last reel.  Ray takes the stage and sings a bitter song, while the family house catches fire, which destroys the invaluable record collection.   But solace and comfort are offered by Billy, Laura’s savior, and in the last scene, the newly formed couple is seen on the roof tending to their pigeons.

The best thing about the film is Horrocks’ haunting performance and her amazing mimicry of musical grands, such as Dietrich, Marilyn, Judy Garland, and Shirley Bassey.  It’s too bad that her fabulous singing is contained in a rather ordinary and awkward narrative that changes too many gears too much often. Indeed, despite moments of magic, whimsy, and humor, the movie is burdened by a narrative that’s trying to do too much.

There are some inexplicable and erratic changes of behavior by characters such as Ray, who goes from being sensitive and sympathetic in the first two chapters before turning nasty and mean in the last, in which he humiliates Mari and almost strangles her to death.  Moreover, the romantic subplot feels like an afterthought, and doesn’t belong in this kind of movie.
That said, Horrocks is perfectly cast, relying on her strange combination of attributes: a slender frame and gamin physique contrasted with a huge vocal talent, resulting in a moving performance that lingers in memory long after the feature is over.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 1

Supporting Actress: Brenda Blethyn

Oscar Award: None

Oscar Alert

The Supporting Actress winner in 1998 was another British actress, Judi Dench in the romantic comedy, “Shakespeare in Love,” which also won Best Picture.

The other nominees in this category were Kathy Bates in “Primary Colors,” Rachel Griffiths in “Hilary and Jackie,” and Lynn Redgrave in “Gods and Monsters.”