Adapted from the stage play by Jim Cartright, Little Voice is the story of Laura (Horrocks), a timid young woman, whose life with an overbearing mother (Brenda Blethyn) has just about turned her into an elective mute. Everywhere except her bedroom, that is, where she hides away listening to her dead dad's collection of old LPs and perfecting her impressions of singers from Judy Garland to Shirley Bassey. Their lives seem stalled until low-rent local impresario Ray Say (Caine) hears Little Voice sing and sees his ticket to success.
In the hands of Mark Herman, Little Voice is a pleasingly morbid kitchen sink musical. Gone is the beery sentimentality of Brassed Off, and in its place a truly black comedy, crowded with memorable grotesques. The film takes a long time to get going, and its air of seedy, seaside theatricality may not appeal to all tastes, but casting and performances are spot on.
Horrocks is superb as the sparrow who ends up singing in a gilded cage, Blethyn pure brass as her bitter, mouthy mother, gleefully chanting "liquor, lacquer" as she swigs her gin and sprays her hair. Still, the real honours must go to Caine, who turns in a splendidly overblown performance as the monstrous Ray. Whether he's chatting up Blethyn, buttering up Horrocks or cruising in his last chance saloon, Ray exudes failure and insincerity like cheap aftershave. He sweats desperation. It's thanks to Caine that when he reveals his true colours at the film's climax, this slow-burning film finally catches fire.