Jane Horrocks finally has the chance to recreate her much lauded stage role of Little Voice on the big screen. For a while the part, created for her by writer Jim Cartwright, looked like it might land in the lap of Gwyneth Paltrow, who Miramax favoured to give the film an inter-national appeal. But it's very hard to imagine anyone else taking the role, with Horrocks turning in an incredible performance as she grows from a shy mouse who can barely whisper "Hello" into a singing diva. This is her film. And that's despite knock-out performances from the rest of the talented cast.
Certainly, you couldn't ask for a better British film to kick the year off to a rousing start. But don't go expecting some sugar-coated feelgood fantasy: director Mark Herman has infused this with the same gritty Northern feel that characterised his previous effort Brassed Off, assembling much of the same production team and shooting on location in wintry Scarborough.
Amusement park lights sparkle in the background, offering the most the town can manage by way of entertainment. The local nightclub, run by Mr Boo (Jim Broadbent), is a sorry establishment, playing host to mouthy strippers and third-rate circus acts. Against such a back-drop the pure talent of LV (as Little Voice is known), appears that much greater. LV and hopeful would-be boyfriend Billy are isolated as the only pure souls - everyone else is out to exploit their fellow townies to the hilt.
LV's mother, fish-market worker Mari, starts the ball rolling. The town tart with a voice so shrill it could skin a cat at 50 paces hooks Ray Say so she can have some fun with his money: the trouble is that he's a sleazy talent agent, broke and only interested in Mari because of her daughter. Both Brenda Blethyn and Michael Caine go for the guts of their characters, which grow from comedy caricatures into down-trodden wretches spitting venom to survive. Mari's best friend Sadie (Annette Badland, repeating her Olivier Award- nominated stage role), is the recipient of all their rants, going along with the plans until she realises that their ambitions do not include any kind of happiness for LV.
Ewan McGregor plays against type as a painfully shy pigeonophile, whose one dream is that his favourite bird will make it home safely. In the quiet LV he senses a soul mate: he is the lone voice who understands her need for privacy, cherishes her for what she is and warns her against the plans of Ray and Mari. The only person since her father, in fact, that she's trusted.
Until the arrival of Billy, LV's dad is the strongest presence in her life. He appears to her as if he was still real (yet to us he is black-and-white). She sings for him, no one else. His ghost brings her hope. It is only when she begins a very tentative friendship with Billy that she starts to see a life beyond the attic and a living person in who she can find solace.
The major drawback with Little Voice is that LV's moment of stage triumph falls somewhat flat. Horrocks' mimicry is astounding and her singing note-perfect, but somehow it loses that edge it must have had in the theatre. On screen we're accustomed to hearing trick voices; good singers providing songs for the beautiful actresses (take Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady or Natalie Wood in West Side Story). So it's harder to be impressed by Horrocks' voice, despite assurances in the credits that she does sing every note. This is when the film's stage origins are betrayed and the spell is broken: after that it never regains its sparkle. But it still has a few good punches to swing,including Caine's glorious drunkenness, LV's triumph and Mari's downfall.
There are other minor quibbles. For some reason, it feels very small-screen. Perhaps this is because, at heart, the story is a simple one and the plot is transparent. But at least the characters really get a chance to develop, and even in its less effective moments, Little Voice is still streets ahead of similar competition.
A gloriously entertaining Brit pic with tour de force performances from Caine, Blethyn and, in particular, Horrocks. It may betray its stage origins occasionally, and lack pace towards the end, but it's still a near-perfect start to the New Year.