Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Little Voice

By Steve Davis

FEBRUARY 8, 1999: 

D: Mark Herman; with Jane Horrocks, Michael Caine, Brenda Blethyn, Ewan McGregor. (R, 99 min.)

The decibel level in Little Voice ranges from a delicate whisper to seismic bellowing; aurally speaking, it traverses the spectrum of human sounds. Sitting on the floor in her lonely room upstairs, the reclusive, mousy L.V. (an abbreviation of "Little Voice") quietly listens to old phonograph records that belonged to her beloved dead father, while her blowsy mother, Mari, screeches downstairs like a foul-mouthed foghorn. It is, to say the least, a study in contrasts. But Little Voice isn't your standard British kitchen-sink drama set in a working-class milieu. Rather, it has a gimmick, and a great one at that: the uncanny and amazing ability of Horrocks, in the title role, to vocally impersonate the likes of Garland, Bassey, Dietrich, Monroe, and others. This ain't lip-synching, honey, it's the real thing. Based on a successful London play written especially to showcase Horrocks' talent for mimicry, Little Voice is best when L.V. transforms into a beautiful songbird, expressing the emotions in the music and lyrics of the songs she's clung to as if they were her own. Watching Horrocks come alive in these scenes is the stuff of goosebumps; it's a star turn in every respect. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie is so weak that it feels like an excuse for giving Horrocks the chance to strut her stuff. (Maybe it is.) The conflict between L.V. and her mother (Blethyn), rooted in their different relationships with the dead father/husband, is Freud-lite, while the appearance of Caine in the role of the sleazy talent agent, Ray Say, is just a plot device to get L.V. in front of an audience. Both Blethyn and Caine shed all inhibitions in their performances as Mari and Ray; watching them bump and grind together is a sight. But the two roles are more grotesques than human beings, created to invoke sympathy for a character that needs none because she's so dazzled you with her gift. (And if you disliked Blethyn in Secrets and Lies, you'll despise her in Little Voice; in these types of roles, she's an acquired taste.) Although the love story between Horrocks and McGregor, her shy suitor, is sweet enough, it can't sustain the movie plotwise, most likely because Horrocks overwhelms the movie whenever she's channeling divas. The essence of Little Voice is a cabaret act, one in which Horrocks transports you to another place. Just close your eyes, and she'll take you over the rainbow.
2.0 stars

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