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Little Voice

Review by Sean Axmaker
Posted 11 December 1998

  Written and Directed by Mark Herman

Starring Brenda Blethyn, Jane Horrocks,
Micheal Caine, Jim Broadbent, Ewan McGregor,
Annette Badland, and Phillip Jackson

I’ll bet my Sinatra collection that "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice" was a show-stopping piece of cabaret theater. The play, written by Jim Cartwright specifically for Jane Horrocks (best known as the elfin PR assistant on the British comedy series "Absolutely Fabulous" and the spaced-age girl from "Red Dwarf"), turns her brilliant gifts for mimicry into the centerpiece of a "coming out" story. As LV (pronounced El-vee, it’s her nickname: short for Little Voice), Horrocks is a meek little girl lost drowned out by the bombastic world around her. Since the death of her father she has retreated from reality by slipping into the stage personas of her favorite singers: cooing Marilyn Monroe, belting out Shirley Bassey with brass, filling the silence of her empty room with the bold richness of Judy Garland. In these moments she creates her own world over the rainbow where her dead father emerges as a B&W flashback in her Technicolor existence and everything that frightens her, scares her, overwhelms her goes away for a few brief moments.

On stage the story was told in the cabaret where LV is coaxed into letting her stars entertain an audience outside of her room, the story told elliptically as characters in the audience dramatize their tales in conversations and confrontations between songs – or so I’m told. Director/screenwriter Mark Herman has taken the premise and the characters and opened it up into a more traditional narrative. The film starts with middle aged matron Mari (Brenda Blethyn) babbling a blue streak – chatting up the phone linemen, cackling over her own jokes, yelling upstairs to daughter LV, talking to herself at times – filling the house with noise and bustle and cigarette smoke. LV shuts herself up in her room to avoid her mom and skitters about the house peering around corners when forced into the open, but says not a word, not even when she meets Billy (Ewan McGregor), the shy assistant to the phone lineman. It’s fully twenty minutes before we find out she’s not mute, peeping in a cartoonish, baby-talk voice.

Mari lives life hard and fast, and her latest beau is Ray Say (a pale, paunchy, life of the party Michael Caine), a two bit agent who likely was never much of anything, but now is on the veritable skids. He’s a big talking, glad handing big shot in a north England seaside town largely because of his past associations with minor would-be stars and his own cool and bravura – in itself largely show, like his gold chains and V-neck shirts. One night at Mari’s he hears LV singing to herself (he thinks it’s a phonograph record at first) and is bowled over. His reaction is a wonder, delight soon overcome by the live action equivalent of dollar signs in cartoon eyes. Ray sees LV as his ticket back to the big time. All he has to do is take LV out of the womb-like world of her bedroom and turn her personal escapes into public performance – right out into the world she has been escaping all her life.

The performance, naturally, becomes the central showpiece of the film, but Herman makes two initial mistakes. By listing the play’s title ("The Rise and Fall of Little Voice") in the opening credits he gives more than a hint to where the film is headed, and by waiting until the closing credits to print the legend "All songs performed by Jane Horrocks" he has the audience second guessing during her performance, a genuine tour-de-force performance that, in the age of modern sound design and mixing, could be within the reach of anyone with a budget. Not only is this Horrocks all the way (and after a few songs you can hear her timbre through each impersonation), but according to the production notes she performed each song live on camera – no mean feat.

Ironically, this amazing performance becomes a key weakness to the film. Herman’s barreling direction drives the film with a narrative energy most American action films aspire to. The cabaret show, for all Horrocks’ talents (and they are great indeed), stalls the film in series of variety numbers – at once too long for the film and too short for Horrocks to really show her stuff. It becomes obvious that Herman’s strengths are not the play’s strengths: he becomes so caught up in the drama around LV, the loud busy social world she desperately seeks to escape, that he loses her own story, drowned out amidst his rapid crosscutting and driving pace, and by dominating performances by Blethyn and Caine. For a moment LV shines, but we never know who she really is. When she’s quiet she’s a mouse, submerged into a wide-eyed, nervous creature. When she voices her songs she takes on the strengths and drive of those performers – she escapes into the identity of another. The problem is, she never really has a self. LV is just as drowned in the film as she is in the story. When she finally stands up to Ray, she does so in the voices that give her strength, but it isn’t exactly clear where it comes from. Only in confronting her mom does she find her own voice, but by then Herman has waited too long to reveal LV’s dormant personality.

Mark Herman’s film may take its title and the plot from the play about a little girl lost, but his film is about the people who hide their loneliness and fear in a facade of bluff and bluster, namely Mari and Ray, and the moments when their facades crack and their carefully hidden vulnerable cores are revealed (buried deep under years of emotional scar tissue), the film finds its true voice. Caine in particular delivers his finest performance in a decade as Ray, capping the film in his own angry, bile-filled delivery of Roy Orbisons’s "It’s Over," a song he spits and barks out with a venal power that makes the Sex Pistols’ "My Way" seem no more threatening than the Spice Girls. It’s a brilliant performance of desperation and fear, one last "Up yours!" to the world, and Herman uses the energy and passion from the piece to crosscut around to his busy little world once again. The film reconnects with it’s footing – Herman’s footing – shows who the film is really about. The conclusion of LV’s story feels merely a half-hearted afterthought. Herman hardly seems aware of the irony that he himself has drowned out Little Voice’s story in the big noises around her.

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