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Salt Lake City Weekly Living Out Loud

Jim Cartwright's celebrated play translates poorly to screen, but Little Voice's singing keeps the film alive.

By Mary Dickson

FEBRUARY 23, 1999:  Brenda Blethyn is indisputably one of Britain's finest actresses, but she keeps getting stuck playing characters so grating you want to shake them until they shut up.

Blethyn nabbed a best actress nomination for her nervously chattering mother in Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies. Now she's up for a best supporting Oscar for her even more annoying character in Little Voice, Mark Herman's film adaptation of Jim Cartwright's Olivier Award-winning play. Blethyn plays the mother of a girl (Jane Horrocks) who can only express herself through famous vintage songs. The girl doesn't speak, but she can sing perfect impersonations of Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and Billie Holiday.

Blethyn's character, a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking alcoholic, keeps her painfully shy daughter cloistered in an upstairs bedroom with nothing but old LPs to keep her company. Verbally abusive mom is the kind of woman having so much trouble accepting her vanished youth that she still pours her jiggly body into tight little skirts and low-cut lycra tops, hobbling about on heels too high to carry the girth.

When she finishes her shift as a cafe waitress, she begins the pub crawl, prowling for the chaps. She downs the booze with any man she can snare, until she or they pass out. It's not a pretty part, and Blethyn plays it to the hilt, making her chatty character so unabashedly shrill that you actually cheer when her silent and much-maligned daughter finally screams, "I never spoke to you because I could never get a word in!"

With a mother like that the daughter doesn't have a chance. Worse, she doesn't even have a name. She just goes by the initials L.V. for Little Voice. Jane Horrocks re-creates her acclaimed stage role as the daughter who responds to her mother's endless tirades with a self-imposed silence. When L.V. does speak, it's in a tiny little Minnie Mouse voice. But when she sings, she's something else. A musical mimic, she can do Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday and more.

Horrocks, who does all the singing, is a sensational performer and the film succeeds best as a musical revue. I found myself wishing it had focused more on the music than on the overplayed story of the poor overlooked daughter who gets a fleeting chance at the big-time.

Michael Caine, also up for an Oscar, gives the film's best performance as the washed-up agent who picks Mom up one night and has a few shags in the Chevy for laughs. When the power goes off at her apartment as they're grappling at each other in the dark, he's surprised that the records L.V. is playing in her room upstairs keep going. When he figures out it's the mousy daughter belting out the tunes upstairs in the dark, he thinks he's stumbled onto the prize performer who will revive his sagging career. The only problem is, L.V. doesn't want to perform publicly. Only when the agent convinces her to sing as a tribute to her dearly beloved late father (whom Mommy drove to an early grave) does L.V. acquiesce.

It's easy to see why Caine took this role. His character may be a washed-up, gold-chain sporting, hard-drinking opportunist, but he also has a bit of a soft spot, which Caine plays very convincingly. In fact, he brings the film genuine tenderness when he gently talks to L.V. about her dead father.

Caine also gets the film's most poignant moment when his character comes to the humiliating realization that his gig is up. He's just a two-bit hustler at the end of his line with nothing to look forward to but a slatternly matron clinging desperately to him. Caine manages to squeeze some sympathy for his character, which Blethyn is unable to do for hers. Even when he cruelly dumps her, telling her that her untethered body disgusts him, it's hard to feel sorry for her.

Horrocks' character, on the other hand, is made for sympathy, though her shrinking violet role grows tiresome. Like so much in the film version of Cartwright's play, it's overdone. What works on stage requires more subtlety on screen. The film is too heavy-handed, right down to the bird metaphor. The agent tells L.V. about a bird who is too scared to leave its cage after its owner has kept it shaded and safe. When the agent finally puts the little bird L.V. on stage to sing, he places her in a gilded gold cage.

Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting) plays a stuttering phone repairman who takes a fancy to L.V. In his spare time he raises carrier pigeons (more bird metaphor). We know as soon as he smiles at her that the shy repairman will rescue L.V. and set the little bird free. Lest the audience hasn't yet grasped the bird metaphor, the film ends with pigeons being set free. We got it already.

It's too bad Herman doesn't recognize when enough is enough. He would have done well to rein in the performances, which are uniformly exaggerated. The play itself seems an excuse to showcase Horrocks' ability to transform her voice into that of the greats. On stage, her revue would be dazzling. On screen, where we know anything can be dubbed, it loses a bit of its luster. Even so, the film is worth the price of admission to hear Horrocks do her magic. "Over the Rainbow" is a show-stopper.

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