Little Voice (1998)
Director: Mark Herman
Screenwriter: Mark Herman
Starring: Jane Horrocks, Brenda Blethyn, Michael Caine, Ewan McGregor, Philip Jackson, Annette Badland, Jim Broadbent
From the director of 1994 working class drama Brassed Off comes the film adaptation of famed stage musical Little Voice, a distinctly British tale of how the biggest of talents can be present even in the smallest of personalities no matter how close Hollywood may or may not be; a humourous take on classism and dreams of superstardom led by an ensemble of acting masterclasses.
With the recent re-emergence of Judy Garland in the public consciousness courtesy of 2019 biopic Judy, Little Voice perhaps holds a new found charm some 22 years after its release. Renée Zellweger won the award for Leading Actress at the 2020 Oscars for her imitation of the Hollywood icon, and in doing so made it difficult to think of the tragic Hollywood heroine without Zellweger’s well intentioned tribute, and it is similarly remarkable to see how accurately Little Voice’s titular lead Jane Horrocks mimics the singing voice and characterisations of one of the 20th century’s most easily recognisable figures. In Little Voice, Horrocks plays the timid and shy LV just the right side of the endearing-frustrating knife’s edge, but when it’s time for her to kick it into a different gear, she proves herself capable of going all the way as the every-girl living out her dream of being a song and stage icon, her astonishingly accurate tributes to Garland all being performed live and in person by the actress herself, the result being simply jaw-dropping.
Horrocks leads a relatively star studded cast of established names, with Trainspotting and would-be Star Wars star Ewan McGregor playing LV’s love interest, while recognisable British industry talents like Philip Jackson, Annette Badland and Jim Broadbent enrich the viewing experience in their own unique ways despite fairly restricted roles, each bringing their own dash of colour to the character piece.
Screenwriter-director Mark Herman said there was a distinct charm he found in getting to work with famed Hollywood star Michael Caine, who was BAFTA nominated for his performance in this film, one that at first he dismissed as being wrong for the picture but in time grew to be fond of, his inspiration being that Caine’s unmistakable southern accent gifted the character a journeyman quality that illustrated how the further you get away from the opportunities of England’s capital city, the further you must have fallen down the totem pole.
The standout, however, is British character actress Brenda Blethyn as LV’s self-indulgent, grossly extroverted and incomparably loud mother. The seasoned performer, whose previous roles were mostly confined to work on British television, was one of Little Voice’s six nominees at the 1999 BAFTAs and the only member of cast or crew to be nominated at that year’s Oscars, her supporting role stealing the show as a comedic distraction that turns more dark and detestable as the narrative progresses, all the while never losing touch of a distinct sense of a kind-heartedness and goodwill that keeps you rooting for her to finally end her cyclical wrongful behaviour patterns.
Set in the once immensely popular holiday destination of Scarborough, North Yorkshire, Herman and company paint the image of former glory in every frame, the home in which LV lives being above a now closed record shop that her father once owned, the beach-side amusements and events venues lighting up the rainy strip as if a long-lost Las Vegas on its last legs. Scarborough here isn’t treated disrespectfully, but it is made clear that seaside destinations such as this have become something of a forgotten aspect of British culture, the very nature of its inclusion reinforcing LV’s longing for her old life of music and joy, with every supporting character filled with the same nostalgia for a period of their life in which they felt young or successful, filled with promise or just plain comfortable.
While certainly funny, and at times downright cinematic, Little Voice is grounded by this sense of unfulfilled potential and the sadness that comes with the restricted prospects of living in an isolated town filled with a bias towards history rather than its future. As was the case with Brassed Off, Herman establishes a sadness, one that even consumes his characters, but he does so in the context of an acknowledgement that the true sadness lies down the road – his characters learning and growing in such a restricted environment that they seem destined for lives as bad or worse than what they have struggled with thus far, that like their town they are destined to erode and devolve, clinging onto their past all the same. The only hope here is for that of LV, her narrative of overcoming grief insinuating something greater than that of her surroundings even away from the stage, though it is worth noting that even in her triumph she is met by insurmountable obstacles and the need to embrace aspects of her mother’s personality she has come to despise.
Albeit a famed stage show with a history of its own, Little Voice is very much a Mark Herman picture when all is said and done. The film’s embrace of working class culture from a very knowing perspective offers the film something more deep and soulful than the music-inspired romp it is advertised as being, and thus delivers upon the artistic expectations set about by the filmmaker’s work on Brassed Off. With acting talent as phenomenal as this, and a vision so unique and particular as regards the film’s setting and themes, Little Voice becomes a standout British feature from the 1990s, a strong bed-fellow for the likes of The Full Monty, Trainspotting and the aforementioned Brassed Off, its particularly comic way of presenting the harshness of life being a very northern, nay Yorkshire, approach that has only become more unique with every passing year since this film’s release.
Nostalgic, funny, cinematic and deep, Little Voice is a terrifically well performed and well constructed piece of British cinematic history; a peer into the country’s classism and the honesty of the sub-cultures of its oft-forgotten localities, a look into a location and a class representation not at all present in mainstream cinema anymore – ironically a time capsule for a better time.