I have a faint remembrance of watching Little Voice when I was still a school kid. It was a film I went to see on a date with a girlfriend at the time. Much like that relationship, any discerning opinions of the film have faded from view. I bring this up as a reminder that so often we watch movies (often subconsciously) through other people as well as through the time and age we first saw them. While I don’t remember disliking what I watched, there’s an itching feeling that I’d remember it more if my first viewing of it wasn’t tied to a relationship that I’ve awkward feelings with.
Looking back at Little Voice now makes the film even quainter than even back then. Released a year after the successful Sheffield based comedy drama The Full Monty, Little Voice is a similar little film-that-could affair, positioning itself in a small town rarely seen in films outside of England (Scarborough), but with funding by then uber Indie Miramax and its obvious narrative pattern. Director Mark Herman opted for this after finishing his previous film Brassed Off (1996), which dealt with the struggling coal pit closures of Grimethorpe in Yorkshire. Combine this with The Full Monty’s ex-steel workers-now male dancers and it’s not difficult to see that the now disgraced Harvey Weinstein saw similar feats in this seaside town tale of a reclusive moppet with a remarkable talent for mimicking singing voices of the likes of Garland and Bassey.
While it may feel like a tale as old as time, it’s that small town, right side of grubby element that provides Little Voice with some substance. Jim Broadbent who plays slick backed cabaret club owner Mr. Boo, toured Yorkshire’s men’s working clubs to nail his character. Herman ensures the film inhabits some of this tone. The close-ups of middle-aged audiences fuelled by warm beer and readily sat down in Boo’s dirty floored, smoke-filled auditorium should be familiar to anyone who may have been dragged to establishments by parents. But it also captures an aspect of Britain that feels like it’s being slowly scrubbed away. Little Voice may only note this at a glimpse but captures that social scene where many of the locals could go out “on the razz” and take in the cheap beer and local entertainment. Since Little Voice, the influx of TV talent shows appear to hark back to the kind of variety shows that Little Voice suggests (it’s hard not to think of Opportunity Knocks) but feel a lot more cleansed.
The affected feel that the Simon Cowells and social media have brought to the variety show are missing and despite Little Voice is a tale of fiction (based of a Jim Cartwright stage play), the drama that occurs here while simplified, have an authenticity in the performances that defies the week in week out sob stories which litter Pop Idols, Strictly Come Dancing and the like. LV (Jane Horrocks) is so rocked by the grief of losing her father, that she can only find her voice in mimicking the records of the big band music that he left for her. Generational tension comes forth from LV’s mother, Mari Hoff (Brenda Blethyn), whose promiscuity is flaunted with reckless abandon in front of her own daughter. The film cleverly sets the stage and highlight the differences through music. One scene in which Mari, fresh from a night on the tiles, is so frustrated with LV’s record playing, decides to combat it by slapping on some music of her own.
The mind frame of each character is immediately communicated through the music played. LV’s soul-searching is cemented in her listening of Cole Porter’s ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’, while Mari’s choice of Tom Jones’ ‘It’s Not Unusual’ is far more telling of its intentions due to the connotations of its infamous Welsh Crooner. Throughout the film, the musical choices by mother and daughter are not only decades apart but quickly establish the loneliness of one character and the carnality of the other. Usually, it would make more sense in our head if the emotions attached to the characters and their song choices were reversed, of course then we’d have no film, as it is where the tensions lie. A daughter trapped by emotions of a lost family member and a mother whose mind is set on getting a leg over.
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Mari has her heart set getting her end away with one Ray Say (Michael Caine) a sleazy promoter of third rate talent who by pure luck manages to hear the golden tones of LV’s voice one night, setting in motion a chain of events which will have LV look inside herself in order to find her self-confidence, which may mean a performance at one Mr. Boo’s.
There’s enough in the performances and visual flourishes to make Little Voice a worthwhile revisit. It holds an awful a lot of heart and while few elements of its feel-good ambitions do not ring true, there’s enough within it to at least make the endeavour entertaining. Much of the of the film’s best elements stem from Jane Horrocks’ controlled performance as LV. Blethyn and Caine won award nominations for their fun, scenery-chomping displays, with Caine’s expletive-laden rendition of It’s Over being a standout. However, this film doesn’t work with the quiet reactions of Horrocks. She spends so much of the film saying so little, it makes her pitch-perfect impressions so more impressive.
As Little Voice is a simple film, so are Herman’s visual touches. The monochrome visions of LV’s deceased father may have a touch of the televisual, particularly now, with the greyed-out visage of actor Graham Turner looking more like some bad colour splash than a moving memory. However, the swooning camera swooping over a dancing LV while the floor is littered with records with Frank Sinatra as the backing track is a solid way to prime a viewer for a start of a film. Later Herman and cinematographer Andy Collins stage simple, blocking techniques which provide more nuance than the (admittedly sharp) dialogue leads on. Shots of LV sitting in her bed, shrouded in shadow with only a stark lonely framed image of her father on a bedroom wall fills in all the blanks that the colourful dialogue never hints at.
Of course, the film sets itself up for a grand centre stage performance which doesn’t disappoint. Horrocks, a well-regarded yet seemingly little talked about performer, delights with a vast array of vocal styles and renditions. The credits are quick to remind the audience that she performed all her songs, which again helps make the variety of the vocals so striking.
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It is after the grand performance in which the film begins to unravel, with the film faltering towards an abrupt and slightly unearned ending involving Ewan McGregor’s earnest Eddie character. The film’s final moments hold a slightly garbled metaphor that involves homing pigeons, which never really rings true but basically insists that you should leave the film happy. This doesn’t feel like the case considering the scene that only just came before it. This could stem from the fact that McGregor’s character is an addition to the film and not part of the original stage play, which would explain the patchiness of the character in terms of his placement.
This doesn’t neglect the rest of the film, however, as Little Voice may not be great in plot, but it is large in heart. Much like the season town and variety shows that it describes, it can feel like British films similar to this are becoming harder to make or find, due to the many different consumer variables which have affected cinema-going and audience trends. But It may be worthwhile to explore the multitude of streaming sites, if not the DVD section of charity shops, to dig out an earnest and enjoyable endeavour. I doubt it will make any adolescents’ date night these days though.