LITTLE VOICE (UK, 1998) ** 1/2
American ears strain, viewers ask their neighbors "What did she say?" and much of the dialogue is lost. That's why some films have had re-recorded sound tracks for export, or, in the case of the great Ken Loach's Riff-Raff and his current My Name is Joe, were subtitled--in English.
It's not all that bad with LV (Little Voice) because the speeches are not deathless. One also gradually gets over some of the talk hurdles as the movie unreels.
The film is based on a much-liked play especially written for Jane Horrocks (of TV's Absolutely Fabulous), specifically to showcase her unquestionable talent for voice and above all song imitations.
Brenda Blethyn plays widow Mari, a motor-mouth tarty tippler with a piggly-wiggly neighbor for best friend and colleague at the fish market. Mari's daughter is a young woman, LV, a kind of recluse in the modest home's attic. She's modern only in one respect, being--what else?--dysfunctional in an odd way. Since the death of her dad (when, I cannot tell), she has inherited his collection of recordings, mostly of American pop and Hollywood songs. She plays them by the hour, looks up at Daddy's photograph, puts more records on the player.
One would think she is a mute, until incidents such as the electricity (hence the machine) going out, make her burst out in amazing vocal copies of Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, Shirley Bassey, Billie Holiday, Marilyn Monroe, Ethel Merman, Marlene Dietrich, Barbra Streisand and more.
A small-time promoter named Ray Say (Michael Caine at his Cockney best) who seems to have hit bottom, in spite of his big, red, American convertible, has been among the many lovers of Mari. He comes to town on business, engages in carnal preliminaries with the ardent Mari, but gets distracted by hearing LV's voice. "Eureka!" he exclaims, "we all got it made!" (Not his specific words but that's the general drift).
He sets out to convince and cajole the more-than-reluctant LV to sing in public. This, of course, is what we're all waiting for. But it takes about the first 45-50 minutes of the movie to get there. Even then, it's just a try-out that panics the shy girl. It will be another 20 minutes until she appears on a stage, doing a beautiful, impressive selection and, in an unlikely way, having already mastered showbiz garb (a clinging sequined dress), manners, gestures, body-English.
The rest of the story is just a frame for LV. Generic, with a number of nice or interesting or semi-eye catching or indifferent bits, by and large it's nothing to sing about.
The performers are very good. Michael Caine cannot be otherwise. Brenda Blethyn, that-woman-you'd-like-to-shut-up, shows a new aspect of her talent. A notable UK stage and TV actress, she came to films in The Witches (1990), played the Rev.Maclean's wife in A River Runs Through It (1992), zoomed to fame and prizes for Secrets and Lies (1996). She's been in movie-demand ever since.
Rising young star Ewan McGregor (Shallow Grave, A Life Less Ordinary, The Pillow Book, etc.) was a lead in LV director-adapter's Mark Herman second feature (this is his third), the charming Brassed Off.
Here McGregor has a smallish role as a telephone repairman who falls, for whatever reason (shyness in common?) for the girl. At the end, in the Fall of LV (not tragic) he takes her up where he keeps pigeons. These fly way, symbolizing freedom, just as Marlon Brando's did in On The Waterfront.
The singing is the main reason to see the picture. I am also pleased
by the British affection for old songs, mostly American. This places LV
marginally in the line of Terence Davies's splendid, moving autobiographical
movies about songs and films bringing solace to otherwise hard, somber
working-class existences: Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long
Day Closes (1992)