Life Is Semisweet

British actress Jane Horrocks is thrice-gifted: She can act, she can sing, and she can sing like Judy Garland. And like Shirley Bassey, Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, and a host of other legendary performers. Horrocks's ability to mimic the singing and speaking voices of these artists lies at the heart of Little Voice, a genre-defying fusion of humor, tragedy, and music about a desperately shy young woman who uses song to escape her abusive mother's daily barrage of scorn and criticism.

Adapted from the British stage play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, which was expressly written by Jim Cartwright to showcase Horrocks's singular talents, this terrific movie manages to invest kitchen-sink realism with the soul of a fairy tale. Horrocks, perhaps best known in this country for her role in Life Is Sweet and on television's Absolutely Fabulous, plays the title character, a reclusive waif who hardly ever speaks, and when she does can barely be heard, hence the nickname. LV, as she is called, lives with her overbearing mother Mari (Brenda Blethyn of Secrets and Lies), a boozy good-time gal way past her prime who wears tight sweaters, short skirts, and too much makeup. Constantly on the prowl for men, she is self-centered, foul-mouthed, and, in sharp contrast to her daughter, never stops talking.

A black-and-white photograph hanging on the wall is all that remains of LV's beloved father, a gentle soul who instilled a love of music in his only child. Holed up in her room with an old phonograph and her father's record collection, LV shuts out her mother -- and the rest of life. When she's not listening to the recordings, she sings the tunes, flawlessly imitating the sounds and gestures of her favorite performers.

Written for the screen and directed by Mark Herman (1996's Brassed Off), Little Voice is about what happens when Ray Say (Michael Caine), a small-time talent agent and low-rent lothario Mari has the hots for, hears LV sing and realizes he has found his ticket to the big time, if only he can convince the terrified girl to cooperate. Trying to protect LV is Billy (Ewan McGregor), a young telephone repairman who is almost as reticent as she is.

The film has the look and feel of a fairy tale. For starters the unprepossessing little industrial town where the story takes place is nestled into an incongruously beautiful horseshoe bay. At sunset the buildings and surrounding bluffs give off a magical aura reminiscent of the fabled village of Brigadoon. Even the bright lights project a certain innocence. Both production designer Don Taylor and director of photography Andy Collins worked with Herman on Brassed Off, and together the trio creates a sparkly world where glitz and dreams somehow coexist with harsh reality.

A highly original work, Little Voice taps into both the comic and tragic components of its story. The humor never masks the horror of the situation, but neither does the existence of pain negate the lighter moments. Blethyn and Horrocks, in particular, have to walk a fine line, because LV's talent for impersonation has all the markings of a battered and abused child who develops other personalities as a safety mechanism to keep from going insane.

Perhaps the surest sign that the actresses, and the film as a whole, succeed is that, against all odds, we end up feeling a certain compassion for even the most monstrous characters. Mari is the biggest monster (a role usually reserved for the stepmother in a fairy tale), and by all rights we should loathe her, but the crestfallen expression that washes over her face when she realizes that Ray isn't interested in her -- rather, only in her daughter's talent -- elicits genuine compassion.

Blethyn is marvelous, as is Caine. With his gold chains, flashy clothes, and shiny red convertible, Ray is part charmer and part sleaze, a smarmy but likable rogue who, even when he turns increasingly ruthless and cruel, is still allowed a measure of humanity. And McGregor will be virtually unrecognizable to fans accustomed to his usual cocky, charismatic roles. Here he imparts absolute believability and sweetness to a sensitive, tongue-tied young man with a passion for homing pigeons and a crush on LV.

Horrocks is a sensation. Her vocal abilities are mind-boggling enough, but not to be overlooked is the gently comic personality she creates for LV when the character isn't singing. The actress brings both humor and pathos to the role, creating an odd but lovable little bird who, like Billy's treasured pigeons, must learn to spread her wings and fly.

Little Voice.
Written and directed by Mark Herman. Based on a play by Jim Cartwright. Starring Jane Horrocks, Michael Caine, Brenda Blethyn, and Ewan McGregor.

 
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