Little Voice” is a small picture with a big heart. Intelligently opened up from Jim Cartwright’s London legit hit, without losing the intimacy of the characters, this broad, northern English working-class comedy centers on a repressed young woman with a gift for mimicking musical show-stoppers. The film has almost everything going for it, with the exception of a somewhat lopsided structure in which the climax comes two-thirds of the way through and a romantic subplot that plays like an afterthought. Nevertheless, smooth direction by Mark Herman and juicy performances by a host of Brit character actors — including Brenda Blethyn and Michael Caine at full tilt — ensure an entertaining ride, signaling warm curtain calls on a limited basis, especially among older, more discerning auds.
Jane Horrocks (Bubbles in “Ab Fab”) encores to great effect her title role in Sam Mendes’ 1992 National Theater production of “The Rise and Fall of Little Voice,” with spot-on vocal impersonations (recorded live) that extend from Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe to Shirley Bassey and Marlene Dietrich. Horrocks is Laura Hoff (nicknamed “L.V.” — “Little Voice”), the withdrawn, almost mute daughter of Mari (Blethyn), an aging white-trash widow in a northern seaside town.
Traumatized by the death of her father, a record store owner with whom she shared a love of song classics, Laura spends most of the time alone in her room, listening to her dad’s vintage disc collection. Downstairs, liberated from domesticity, mom is in sexual overdrive, with sleazy, failed London talent agent Ray Say (Caine) the latest object of her loudmouthed attentions.
When Ray happens to hear Laura singing to herself in her room, he smells a major chance at the big time and manages to persuade both local niterie owner Mr. Boo (Jim Broadbent) and Mari to give Laura a chance onstage. The big question is whether Laura will play along, and whether her private gift will translate as a public performance.
Perhaps in recognition that Cartwright’s original yarn was an essentially flimsy concept, specifically tailored for the stage and Horrocks’ special talent , director-writer Herman (“Brassed Off”) keeps the pedal to the metal from the get-go, powered by an all-stops-out performance by Blethyn with the broadest of broad Scarborough accents. (Original play was set in landlocked, industrial Bolton, with Alison Steadman as the mom.) Blethyn’s blowzy motor-mouthed perf — as far from her emotionally strangled one in Mike Leigh’s “Secrets & Lies” as can be imagined — is an outrageous delight, bouncing off the walls of the tiny house through which her character totters, and matched in histrionic vulgarity by Caine’s aging, Bermuda-shirted talent scout.
Latter thesp, like some 30-years-on version of Alfie, hasn’t had a role like this in ages, and one sequence — Mom and Ray getting down ‘n’ dirty to Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual” while Laura essays Judy Garland upstairs — is worth the price of admission alone. Caine’s range, however, comes through in pic’s later stages, in a quieter, key scene in which he convinces Laura to honor her dad’s memory by performing publicly, and in the pic’s musical climax, when Ray realizes the true depth of the emotions he’s unleashed in both himself and Laura.
Horrocks, whose combo of gamin physique and big vocal talent make the title role seem unthinkable for any other actress, is a revelation, handling moments of solo emotion and onstage strutting with equal, moving panache. It’s the fault of the screenplay rather than Horrocks’ performance that a subplot of Laura’s romance with a shy telephone engineer (Ewan McGregor) doesn’t gather much moss: McGregor’s role is underwritten, and doesn’t come through in the latter stages to fill in some of the emotional void in the final act.
Still, other supports are richly etched, from Broadbent’s tacky nightclub owner, through hatchet-faced Philip Jackson’s wry elder colleague of McGregor, to the silent, put-upon friend of Blethyn limned by Annette Badland, reprising her stage role.
Tech credits are modest but clean, opened up for Horrocks’ stage act but generally maintaining the colorful-grunge look of a seaside resort (pic was shot in Scarborough). John Altman’s musical arrangements are suitably brash, reflecting the tacky niterie setting.