Courtesy Photo
***1/2 99 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, December 4, 1998
Adapted & directed by Mark Herman

Starring Jane Horrocks, Brenda Blethyn, Michael Caine, Ewan McGregor & Jim Broadbent

This film received an honorable mention on the Best of 1998 list.


This is a warm & fuzzy, cuddle up in pajamas video. Capra-esque and driven by personalities both gigantic and understated, it will translate well to the small screen, but it has some enormous moments that in the theater burst off the screen and those scenes need undivided attention to make up for lack of size.

'AbFab's Jane Horrocks shines as shy mimic who embodies famous torch singers

By Rob Blackwelder

Almost every December there are comments bandied about regarding how English women seem to dominate the Best Actress category in the Academy Award nominations. Get ready for more of the same, and this year the names you'll be hearing most are Cate Blanchett ("Elizabeth") and Jane Horrocks, the luminous star of "Little Voice."

In a role written expressly to showcase her talents, Horrocks -- whose major claim to fame to date has been as Bubble, the uber-airhead secretary on "Absolutely Fabulous" -- immerses herself the surprising extremes of a fragile, mousy, shut-in who spends most of her days locked in her sparse bedroom, which seems to not have changed since childhood, worshipping her dead father's favorite torch singers at an worn out potable record player.

Timid to the point of sometimes being mistaken for mute, this rail-thin girl nicknamed Little Voice or LV, rarely makes a peep, not even to contradict to her tawdry, boisterous, impertinent lush of a mother (Brenda Blethyn).

But when the mood strikes her, this unremarkable girl (she looks like a plain, insecure Gwyneth Paltrow) spontaneously breaks into song, metamorphosing into the living embodiment of the singers she hears on her records.

The stunning sounds that come out of her mouth are so impossible to distinguish from the real Judy Garland, Billie Holliday, Marilyn Monroe, et al, that when her randy mother brings home a third-rate talent agent (a perfectly cast Michael Caine) for a quick shag, he immediately sees LV's voice as his ticket out of a dead-end career representing strippers and low-rent cabaret acts.

Modest and fablesque, writer-director Mark Herman steers "Little Voice" into affecting and magical territory without losing its gritty, English working class edge until the last reel, when it slips into a small avalanche of clichés that prevent the movie from achieving masterpiece status.

Caine and Blethyn, who earned a much-deserved Oscar nomination in 1996 for "Secrets and Lies," somehow manage to chew scenery and give career performances as a sad and comical pair of frayed, middle-aged miscreants exploiting LV in an attempt to turn what's left of their lives into something more bearable.

Too meek to resist the flurry of spurious nurturing Caine showers her with, and at the same time thoroughly indisposed to performing outside the familiar surroundings of her bedroom, LV finds herself dolled up in a gold gown and pushed into a the spotlight of a road-side night club crowded with curiosity-seekers.

The resulting concert scene is sensational. After several uncomfortably silent minutes on stage just staring down the microphone, she envisions her father in the audience and suddenly breaks into a Judy Garland imitation -- gestures, body language, spirit and all -- that brings to house down. After half a dozen other songs, embodying Holliday, Monroe and others, she stops suddenly and instantly reverts to her childlike, introverted self.

The concert scene has the energy of a Broadway sensation, in contrast to the rest of the film, in which Herman creates a dour atmosphere. But as he did in "Brassed Off," the director energizes the film with lively, savory characters. In addition to Blethyn's aging tart and Caine's gold-chained sad sack. Ewan McGregor, in his last role before his inevitable "Star Wars" prequel superstardom, plays LV's equally shy love interest with the joie de vivre of someone who is down and out but still goes through life beaming.

And while the movie wouldn't have been as satisfying without these particular supporting players, Jane Horrocks' performance (honed during two years in the Jim Cartwright play on which the film is based) is the unmistakable essence of this movie. Her effortless, almost haunting transformations from wallflower to bombshell and back again are astonishing to watch. But while her talent for mimicry is the draw (you won't believe your ears, but Horrocks really does all her own singing in these famous voices), the moderated, bashful part of Horrocks' character captures the audience long before she breaks into song.

"Little Voice" is modern, more biting take on what used to be traditional holiday entertainment, before studios started releasing horror and action movies at Christmas. Uplifting, life-affirming and a bit corny in spots, but with an underlying bleakness, its a post-modern Frank Capra picture that even a cynic can delight in.

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