Little Voice
directed by Mark Herman
(Miramax, 1998)

Mari Hoff might be living a most unextraordinary life as a north-of-England widow, were it not for her most unusual daughter, Laura, a.k.a. Little Voice, a recluse who spends most of her day in her room listening to old records by one chanteuse or another: Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Marilyn Monroe, Billie Holiday (whom she does way better than Diana Ross ever did).

When she's not listening to them (on vinyl for all you classic album buffs) or watching clips of them on TV, Little Voice (Jane Horrocks) is imitating them, something she does with astounding accuracy and verve for someone with so little voice.

And yet that little voice might never have reached beyond the confines of the Hoff household had Little Voice's mother (Brenda Blethyn) not been picked up at a local disco by local talent scout Ray Say (Michael Caine), who gets more than he bargained for when the lights go out during a tumble on the couch and he hears Little Voice give voice to one of her favorites.

For Say, that's the moment of truth: he's found the performer who's going to make him rich, famous and even more garish than he already is. He has the connections; the only problem is how to get this psychotically shy songbird on the stage.

That makes Little Voice a kind of chain of "what ifs," each hanging precariously -- and, thanks to Blethyn and Caine, hilariously -- on the "what if" that comes before it.

Blethyn and Caine make the perfect past-their-prime couple: two people so out of it they'll never be able to see just how out of it they are. If you have any doubts, get a load of them dancing to Tom Jones records in Hoff's living room. It's a bit that defies description.

Of the two, Caine gives the more rounded performance, opening up his character to show first a tender side and then a practical bent, both of which go down in a fit of rage when it's clear he's going to wake up just before his lifelong dream comes true. It stands up to Caine's best performances and demonstrates his mastery of comic timing, not to mention his way with complex characterization.

No less impressive is Horrocks' performance as an array of vocalists -- the credits note that she did all her own imitations -- and, ultimately, as Little Voice herself, the child who finally learns to speak as an adult.

Keeping the pot boiling is Ewan McGregor as an equally shy pigeon fancier who also fancies Little Voice, but for much different reasons than everyone else.

Little Voice is a sweet film, hysterical at times, at other times thoughtful or even scary. It gets off to a rough start, if only because the north-of-England accents are so thick it takes time to get used to them. Then, too, the symbolism is a little less than subtle -- the pigeon metaphor, for example, or the use of a bird cage as part of Little Voice's stage set.

But Little Voice does have something to say, and it says it with humor, style and grace. That's a lot for a voice so little. A lot of "bigger" films should say half so much.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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