Film: Play for yesterday

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The Independent Culture
In Little Voice, adapted by Mark Herman from Jim Cartwright's West End stage hit, Jane Horrocks delivers a note-perfect repertoire of celebrity vocal impersonations. Close your eyes and you seem to hear the voices of Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey, Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich; yet the sound is all the work of the remarkable Horrocks, whose slender frame belies the mighty vocal powers she exercises here. She plays LV - Little Voice - a retiring northern lass who honours the memory of her dear departed dad by cherishing his favourite diva records and refusing to speak to her loud, sluttish mother, Mari (Brenda Blethyn). Then Mari's latest flame, a sleazeball agent named Ray (Michael Caine), overhears LV's bravura imitations and swiftly battens on her as his ticket to the big time.

Herman revisits the seam of bluff northern humour he mined in Brassed Off, and brings along his star, Ewan McGregor, to play a pigeon fancier who shyly courts LV. McGregor's role didn't exist in the play, and his presence - albeit dressed down in nerdy anorak and specs - is plainly an attempt to juice up the proceedings. Try as they might, however, the film-makers can't make Little Voice any less dowdy and cramped than it looked on stage. This is drama still smeared with greasepaint, and chock- full of exits and entrances that scream theatre matinee. Twenty years ago, it would have made a so-so Play For Today; now it's touted as a great British film contender.

Horrocks is terrific when she's belting out the songs, but in repose her moon calf eyes and open mouth are too pathetic. Her northern little- me-ism can pall, and she'll have to work hard if she's not to become her generation's Julie Walters. At least she doesn't unbalance the film in the way the stupefying awfulness of Brenda Blethyn's performance does - next to her caricatured harridan, the Fat Slags from Viz seem a model of decorum. Caine and Jim Broadbent fare better, and make their greasy-haired opportunism oddly attractive: Caine has fun snarling out a drunken, rancorous "It's Over", silencing a nightclub audience and sealing his showbiz career at a stroke. Yet their efforts, welcome as they are, have no greater purchase on truth than anything else in this sentimental folk opera.

There's also some memorable singing in To Have and Have Not (1945), courtesy of the 19-year-old Lauren Bacall: it was actually the voice of the young Andy Williams, but the way Bacall slouches at the piano while Hoagy Carmichael accompanies her on "How Little We Know" tells you all you need to know about being a star - was there ever a more self-assured debut in the Forties? Spotted by Howard Hawks's wife on the cover of Harper's Bazaar in 1943, Bacall was taken up by Hawks, trained to deepen her voice and cast opposite Humphrey Bogart in this loose adaptation of a Hemingway story. Set in Martinique just prior to US involvement in the Second World War, Bogart's a seen-it-all boat captain who refuses to be drawn into the conflict between the ascendant Vichy government and the Free French. Until, that is, he crosses paths with Bacall's insolent cat-woman (named Slim, after Mrs Hawks), who has the nerve to ask him (Bogart!) if he knows how to whistle.

The plot is essentially a re-run of Casablanca. There's the tropical setting, drowsy with corruption; there's the French patriot and his wife who need to get the hell out; there's the cynical American loner who insists on non-alignment but then finds his decency getting the better of him; there's even the bar-room pianist, though no equivalent of "As Time Goes By". The tone of To Have and Have Not is altogether lighter, jauntier; the poignancy of unfulfilled love that haunted Casablanca is here replaced by the spectacle of a hard-bitten individualist at last finding a woman who's a match for him, though they keep each other at arm's length for most of the film. When Bacall tells Bogart she's been hired by the cafe proprietor to sing, he shrugs: "Sing? Well, it's his place." Later, she watches him carry an unconscious woman to a bed: "What are you trying to do - guess her weight?" Miaow! While it's Bacall's feline sexiness that transforms a dull drama into a romantic comedy, Bogart is tolerably wonderful, too, and looks more relaxed than usual. He's an enduring marvel of grace under pressure; as Kenneth Tynan wrote: "I don't think we can say Bogart was a great actor, but he remained, to the end, a great behaver." Like the moment here when a Vichy thug demands to know his nationality. "Eskimo," he replies, unblinking.