Little Voice (1998)

D: Mark Herman
S: Jane Horrocks, Brenda Blethyn, Michael Caine

A shy young woman with an overbearing mother has a surprising talent for singing in the style of famous chanteuses. When a dead-end theatrical agent happens upon her, he immediately plans to make her a star and make himself a fortune regardless of the consequences to anyone involved. Meanwhile she is romanced by an almost equally shy telephone engineer (Ewan McGregor), but is unable to escape the spectre of her beloved, dead father in more ways than one.

Satisfying fantasy drama from the play "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice" by Jim Cartwright showcasing strong performances from Jane Horrocks, Brenda Blethyn and Michael Caine. Seen within the tradition of British social drama from which it is descended, Little Voice is an unconvincing and simplistic variant on an old Hollywood formula. Seen as a psychological drama it is a mass of Freudian clichés peppered with surrealist imagery. Yet to approach the film from either of these contexts is to deny its pleasures. It is no more about the mundanity of life in contemporary working class Britain than it is an insight into father-daughter relationships. This is a fantasy which springs out of a generically predetermined reality defined by a familiar set of representational and narrative conventions, and is as concerned with realism as The Wizard of Oz was about the effect of Tornadoes on Kansas. It is schematic, deliberate and predictable, but it is involving.

Little Voice is never surprising, but it is entertaining. It is very reminiscent of other films (including Peter Chelsom's even more peculiar Funny Bones), yet it has a character which is all its own. Director Mark Herman controls the elements beautifully, and though it seems we are sledgehammered with the various metaphors and symbols (images of birds and cages abound) and the characterisations are as over the top as can be (Brenda Blethyn is practically a live action incarnation of the Viz comic book characters 'The Fat Slags', Horrocks is so timid as to occupy negative space), this is really all part of the film's unique fabric.

It is an appealing trip through a surreal but recognisable world which times its punches well. Horrocks, Blethyn, and Caine perform with gusto (Horrocks performs the spectacular stage routine herself), backed up by support from McGregor and Jim Broadbent. The action takes place in a subtly stylised universe, a broad and fantastical interpretation of a seaside community complete with a seedy night club which is transformed into a wonderland with hilarious ease. The strains of plot and characterisation are drawn from a variety of sources and bring to mind so many films that it becomes a generic cinematic landscape rather than a particular setting. The confrontations and revelations come on cue and follow expected trajectories, right down to the fate of one of McGregor's homing pigeons and the intervention of a big time theatrical agent. It all comes together very well, and it is by turns funny, sad, and even terrifying (Caine's performance of "It's Over" on stage is a chilling and powerful moment). Its cathartic climax is not so much revealing as inevitable, and its happy ending produces a wry smile partly because it is so expected.

It is as if Little Voice works well precisely because we've seen it all before. This is a peculiar paradox and ultimately the most unexpected element of the whole thing. It is infectious and enjoyable in a way that is difficult to describe, and will probably appeal to most viewers who are willing to surrender themselves to the pleasures it offers without worrying too much about where they come from or where they've been.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.