Jane Horrocks is renowned among Absolutely Fabulous devotees as the spectacularly ditsy publicity assistant Bubble, whose office skills barely stretch to taking a decipherable phone message. But among certain London theatergoers, Horrocks is famed for her extraordinary talent for impersonation. In Little Voice, the pale-haired British actress plays a desperately unhappy wallflower — she’s nearly mute with psychological damage — who busts out of her emotional prison when she’s singing in the voice of Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, or Shirley Bassey. The part was written for her by Jim Cartwright, and it’s evident why the play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice won awards: Horrocks inhabits the role like a movie star who’s led a past life singing ”Come Rain or Come Shine”.
The movie adaptation, though, suffers the symptoms of so many stage-to-screen transplants: What seemed thrillingly big and bold in live performance comes across shrunken and hemmed in when ”opened up” to fill a feature film. (Dancing at Lughnasa caught the same shriveling ailment.) Directed by Mark Herman from his own screenplay and stooping for the same glittery pathos he brought to Brassed Off (1997), this Voice clatters through the streets of a mangy Northern English town inventing busy visual context for the homebound existence of Little Voice.
”LV” lives with her smeary, drunken, bullying, man-hungry, widowed mother, Mari (Brenda Blethyn, chewing scenery like she had fangs), and spends most of her time in her bedroom, revering the memory of her quiet, dear, dead Dad by obsessively playing the records he loved; the only person on earth who seems to understand her is a shy telephone repairman (Ewan McGregor, graciously plastering down his sexy-guy hair to play ”plain”), who, in a none-too-subtle movie-ized addition, also raises pigeons and thus, see, understands caged songbirds.
Mari is hot for Ray, a sleazy, two-bit talent promoter (Michael Caine, swallowing huge chunks of scenery without even bothering to chew), who puts up with Mari for the boinks. But then he overhears LV musically communing with the dead up in her room. And that does it: He throws himself maniacally into making her the star she has no intention of being. Her own voice may be little, but it’s hers, the filmmaker wants you to know, but in case you’re just the slightest bit unsure, he includes a scene of LV bonding with the moodiest bird in the telephone man’s pigeon coop. It’s a moment about which Ab Fab‘s Bubble would smartly, concisely comment, ”Ewwww, ick.”