Cast: Brenda Blethyn (Mari), Jane Horrocks (LV), Ewan McGregor (Billy), Philip Jackson (George), Annette Badland (Sadie), Michael Caine (Ray Say), Jim Broadbent (Mr Boo), Adam Fogerty, James Welsh (The Bouncers), Karen Gregory (The Stripper), Fred Feast (Arthur), Graham Turner (LV’s Dad).
Crew: Mark Herman (director), Elizabeth Karlsen (producer), Mark Herman (writer), John Altman (music), Andy Collins (cinematography), Michael Ellis (editor), Don Taylor (production designer).
Synopsis: LV is an agoraphobic woman who lives with her overbearing mother Mari. They share a dilapidated house with faulty wiring in a faded seaside town. When shy telephone engineer Billy visits to install a new line, he is smitten by LV. She says almost nothing, retreating to her bedroom and the solace of her late father’s record collection to escape her raucous mother. Mari brings home her latest lover Ray Say, a talent agent from London whose acts have no talent. He hears LV singing and is stunned by her ability to mimic the likes of Judy Garland and Shirley Bassey. Billy asks LV out but she declines. Ray brings local club owner Mr Boo to hear LV sing.
They decide she must go on stage, aided and abetted by Mari. But LV’s first appearance is a disaster – she will only sing in the dark. Ray convinces LV to try again by hinting it is what her father would have wanted. The agent puts all his money and more into the show, creating a Las Vegas-style extravaganza with a big band but also running up large debts to loan sharks. LV does the show, singing to the ghost of her father, but refuses to repeat the performance. Ray is ruined. The wiring in LV and Mari’s home gives out and the house burns down. Billy rescues LV from the flames. She finally confronts her mother about all the years of neglect and abuse. LV leaves, free at last…
Jim Cartwright wrote his play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice as a vehicle for actress Jane Horrocks’ ability to mimic many different singers of the 20th Century. The Sam Mendes-directed play was a smash hit in London’s West End in the early 1990s and film rights were soon snapped up, with America’s Miramax studio helping fund the production. The company wanted the story transplanted to a US setting with an American actress in the title role – Gwyneth Paltrow was among those linked to the project.
But British filmmaker Mark Herman rejected such suggestions when he was brought on board to write and direct the adaptation. ‘To hear a Jude Garland impression coming out of an apartment in Chicago isn’t as quirky as hearing Garland come out of a little apartment in Scarborough,’ he told Entertainment Weekly magazine in 1998. ‘It seemed immoral to do a version of Little Voice without Jane. This is Jane’s movie.’ Pete Postlethwaite played sleazy talent agent Ray Say in the original play but was too busy filming Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World to reprise his role.
Herman was unsure when Caine was suggested to replace Postlethwaite. ‘Michael is one of those actors I thought would come with all this baggage. Then I spoke to him on the phone and we realised we both had the same vision for his character. After seeing Blood and Wine (1996), in which he plays a pretty sleazy man, I knew he was dead right.’
In a public interview at the NFT in 1998, Caine recalled getting the script for Little Voice. ‘I hadn’t worked for about two years really, not on a movie-movie. [In fact Caine starred in a film called Shadow Run (1998) and two TV projects.] I’d just sat waiting for a good script. I got Blood and Wine (1996) … But this was the movie I was really waiting for, and it came.’ Caine had been up for the role of the villain in The Avengers (1998) film, but was passed over for Sean Connery. The next day the script for Little Voice arrived. ‘I read the first twenty pages … I just screamed at Shakira [his wife], I got it! I got it! This is it.’ Caine recalled the scene where he persuades LV to perform. ‘That was the best piece of writing I’ve had in a long time and the best scene I’ve done in a picture in years.’ He offered to act with a Northern accent, but Herman felt that might distract the audience.
Production began in October 1997, with location shooting in Scarborough and studio work at Twickenham in London. ‘I put on 25 pounds to play the role,’ Caine told Hello in 1999. ‘I grew my hair. I wanted to take him as far away from me as possible. He was awful. I didn’t want anyone thinking he had anything to do with me!’
Little Voice had its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September 1998 before reaching US cinemas three months later, rated R. The picture received strong reviews from critics and grossed nearly $5 million in limited release. Greater success followed in January 1999 when the film reached British cinemas (rated 15), grossing more than $14 million. UK critics were full of praise and the picture also attracted kudos during the awards season.
Caine won his second Golden Globe film trophy, for best actor in a musical or comedy, while Brenda Blethyn and Horrocks were both nominated. At the BAFTAs Little Voice earned six nominations, including one for Caine as best actor, but took home no trophies. Caine won the London Critics’ Circle film award as best supporting actor. At the Oscars Blethyn was the only nominee from the film. Little Voice is available on DVD and VHS.
Reviews: ‘Little Voice is a small picture with big heart. The film has almost everything going for it … including Brenda Blethyn and Michael Caine at full tilt…’ – Variety
‘An almost perfect blend of biting wit, heart-warming comedy and superb acting … Caine and Blethyn steal the show; the former’s wideboy act goes down a storm.’ – Empire
Verdict: Once a year British filmmakers hit the jackpot with a small film that is funny, thought-provoking and touching. Little Voice is such a movie. Mark Herman does a remarkable job in opening out the original stage play, making the theatrical origins far from obvious. Little Voice may have been created as a vehicle for Horrocks, but her performance is slight once you get past the freakish karaoke skills. By comparison Blethyn’s acting almost strips paint from walls, such is its caustic nature. Caine matches her outrageousness, but also succeeds in making his character’s quiet moments just as compelling. If Blood and Wine (1996) reminded people he was still alive, this film got the Caine career revival rolling – and launched a lucrative relationship with Miramax. Despite a resolution that feels too neat, Little Voice is an enjoyable example of the small British movie.