Friday, January 29, 1999

Big heart

Movie: Little Voice

Posted on Fri, Jan 29, 1999 at 4:00 AM

***1/2
Our Rating: 3.50

Laura Veronica (Jane Horrocks) is a petite and excruciatingly shy teen-ager who lives with her overbearing floozy of a mom, Mari (Brenda Blethyn), on the coast of northern England. The mousy, frail LV mostly communicates by way of a tiny, squeaky voice. She's barely there and needn't be vocal anyway: Her widowed, hot-to-trot mother fills up all the available conversation space, and more.

Recurring, beatific visions of LV's dead father (Graham Turner), whose old records have become his daughter's closest friends, effect a remarkable transformation, though. The girl suddenly begins cooing and belting her way through drop-dead interpretations of the Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey and Marilyn Monroe songs found in dear cuckolded dad's surviving vinyl stash. LV's impressions of those artists is so convincing, in fact, that she might be said to be channeling their spirits.

"Little Voice," Mark Herman's adaptation of Jim Cartwright's "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice," a London stage hit, follows the initially successful efforts of mom, sleazy and mostly unsuccessful talent agent Ray Say (Michael Caine) and strip-club owner Boo (Jim Broadbent) to mold their discovery into a star.

Herman ("Brassed Off") has crafted another gritty story of hope among the blue-collar workers and unemployed of Britain, a poignant if occasionally maudlin story that hinges on the remarkable performances of Horrocks (reprising her stage role), Blethyn and a revitalized Caine.

Caine, who just nabbed a Golden Globe for his work, is right on the money as an aging ladies' man as lucky at one-night stands as is he is unlucky at landing a star client. All that changes one night, after a tumble with Mari.

The old scam artist hears what he assumes to be a voice emanating from a record player somewhere in the distance. A lightbulb goes off in his brain as he realizes that LV is responsible for the sound and that she might be the impossible dream he's spent an entire career pursuing.

Caine is by turns repugnant and poignant as a man willing to do what it takes, including calling in every last one of his favors and feigning real interest in the ever-chatty Mari, to turn LV into a world-beating sensation. Blethyn, too, turns in a superb performance as a not particularly likable woman with a resilient exterior and a heart likely to be broken.

Rising star Ewan McGregor ("Trainspotting") is also impressive in a surprisingly small role as Billy, an introspective repair man and homing-pigeon keeper who seems to rescue LV from real danger and psychological imprisonment.

The riveting finale furiously cross-cuts between LV's over-the-edge recitation of old standards and lines from "The Wizard of Oz" and Ray's pathetic stage performance of "It's Over." Too bad Herman had to literalize it all with those closing shots of birds on the wing backed by Sinatra singing "Come Fly With Me." LV has finally been set free. See?

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