Little Voice (Jane Horrocks) is a child-like woman, a recluse, grieving over the death of her father. His record collection, which they listened to together, now provides Little Voice with her solitary recreation. She has listened so often to the records that she is able to impersonate the voice and manner of several female vocalists, among them her father's favorites-Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and Shirley Bassey. Mari (Brenda Blethyn), Little Voice's tin-eared mother, is irritated by her daughter's seclusion and by her record-playing, until a slimy agent, Ray Say (Michael Caine), convinces Mari that Little Voice can be a star and make their fortunes.
Little Voice is based on Jim Cartwright's play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, which premiered in 1992 at the National Theatre in London. Horrocks, whose delightful impersonations bring Garland and Monroe back to life, also starred in the stage version. Mark Herman, the writer/director of Brassed Off, adapted Cartwright's play and directed the film. While Herman may have seemed a good choice because of his earlier success, an adaptation involving British working-class characters not unlike Mari and Ray Say, his screenplay misses the mark. It spends too much time on minor characters like Ray and his sidekick, club owner Mr. Boo (Jim Broadbent), in an attempt to externalize Little Voice's interior struggle. In her quest to create a life beyond her room, Little Voice confronts something far more profound than the machinations of these unscrupulous men: her mother's insensitivity and jealousy. Herman's screenplay trivializes the psychological and spiritual aspects of Little Voice's struggle to make herself heard over her mother's screeching criticism. Perhaps the adaptation to film was a mistake altogether, but, in any case, this is a story that calls for a more experienced screenwriter and director.
What rescues the film somewhat are the performances by Horrocks and by Ewan McGregor as Billy, a pigeon fancier who works as a telephone installer. He is drawn to Little Voice's shyness and to her separateness, qualities he shares. Together, they seem to rise above the gritty, working-class reality of this seaside town, he with his pigeons and Little Voice with her music. McGregor, who appeared in Brassed Off and in Trainspotting, shows a different side here, an ability to handle an introverted and emotionally complex character. Horrocks is nothing short of magnificent. Aside from her remarkable ability to impersonate-her renditions of 'Daddy' and 'I Want to Be Loved by You' will send chills up your spine-she manages to embody the archetypal struggle for identity in a way that transcends any attempt to trivialize it. Caine's and Blethyn's performances are marred by Herman's direction-they're too often over the top. In a small role as Sadie, Mari's friend, Annette Badland (Hollow Reed, Angels & Insects), who has even fewer spoken lines than Little Voice, is quite memorable.
Herman's biggest mistake was to ignore the backstory implied by Little Voice's solitary existence-it's the stuff of Greek tragedy, not Brassed Off-style comedy. Little Voice is the product of her parents' unhappy marriage: Mari never got the attention she craved and deserved, from her husband or from anyone else, so she became embittered by the special relationship her husband and daughter shared. That's the reason for her jealousy and for her somewhat unconscious alliance with Ray Say in the exploitation of Little Voice. Emphasizing the bitterness and desperation of Mari and Ray, Herman minimizes the archetypal elements of Little Voice's relationship with her parents. The dramatic impact of the story is lost, and Little Voice's transcendence fails to take on the profound proportions it inherently possesses.