Thursday, August 21, 2008

Movie Log: Little Voice

I'm beginning to think that Netflix is deliberately taunting me; this time it described Little Voice as a "musical comedy." Musical, yes -- absolutely. But comedy? Even with my broad definition of the term, I wouldn't think this quite qualifies.

The most important thing about Little Voice is that it was based on a stage play, and that shows through in a hundred little ways and several huge ones. Most importantly, the dialogue is all designed to be declaimed from a position five feet above and somewhat forward from the audience's position -- and, along the same lines, that dialogue is long and intricate and bears very little relationship besides diction and cadence to the ways that real people actually speak. (It also includes a remarkable amount of direct insults and put-downs, the fruit of half a century of British "kitchen sink" dramas.)

The other big adjustment is the scene problem -- in a play, when some characters appear in front of a particular bit of scenery, you know that you're in for "a scene," and that the scenery won't shift until this particular scene is done. But, in a film, cameras can and do move to follow actors, so there's no reason why someone couldn't, or wouldn't, head right upstairs to see what's going on instead of continuing his very stagy argument.

So most of the "why the hell doesn't he..." and "can't they just go..." problems with Little Voice are pure artifacts of the stage; they wouldn't even come to mind while watching a play, but they do come up during a movie, since film has greater freedom.

Anyway, this is the story of Little Voice (Jane Horrocks), who is probably autistic, definitely has some kind of developmental disorder, and lives in some dreary northern England city (British viewers can probably tell which one instantly from the accent and the sweeping shot of the harbor at the beginning of the movie) with her horrible, non-stop-talking, horrible, hot-to-trot, horrible mother Mari (Brenda Blethyn). The first ten minutes of the movie are Blethyn talking non-stop, pausing for air at least once.

Two telephone installers come to Mari and LV's house -- young quiet Billy (Ewan McGregor) and older bluff George (Philip Jackson). Each one sets his eye on a female inhabitant of that house, in his own style.

But the real plot has to do with Mari's most recent boyfriend -- she screwed him in his car the evening before, down by the waterfront in a line with a number of other cars rocking on their springs -- Ray Say (Michael Caine), a very minor show biz agent. Ray is close with the owner of the local nightclub, Mr. Boo (Jim Broadbent).

LV barely speaks and never leaves the house, spending her whole life in her room, listening to the records her dead father left her -- records by the usual array of old-fashioned female singers, from Judy Garland to Shirley Bassey. She, as Ray learns serendipitously, has the amazing ability to mimic those singers -- to replicate those recorded performances down to the note and the phrase of stage patter -- but she only does so alone, in the dark.

Ray, being a monstrous stereotype of an agent, immediately realizes that there's big bucks to be made from an infinitely shy young woman of no great looks, singing songs that were old and forgotten thirty years ago, in a cheap dive in this hard-bitten Yorkshire town. (This is why he is a huge show business success, and I am not. Or perhaps vice versa.)

Things do not go well, as any viewer with two brain cells to rub together could tell. Little Voice has the structure of a tragedy -- despite all of the jokes -- though there are tragic flaws enough to spare for the entire cast.

I might have accepted Little Voice on stage, but it's harder to swallow when translated to film. It's not just that all of the characters do ridiculous things for inadequate reasons, nor that they're clearly acting towards the back wall of an West End house -- it's also that they're all exceptionally stagy characters, starting with the never-seen-anywhere-but-on-a-stage Mari.

It's all entertaining, but The Wife and I didn't find it believable for a moment. Horrocks did all of her own singing, and that's amazing -- but we couldn't quite accept Little Voice as a story of actual human beings living in the real world.

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Buzz Stephens said...
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