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'Little Voice': Sing Alleluia

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 25, 1998

  Movie Critic

Little Voice
Michael Caine is a talent agent who has big plans for "Little Voice," played by Jane Horrocks. (Miramax)

Mark Herman
Brenda Blethyn;
Jane Horrocks;
Michael Caine;
Jim Broadbent;
Ewan McGregor
Running Time:
1 hour, 48 minutes
For profanity and a stripper's you-know-whats visible in a nightclub scene
I sometimes think that the movies are the last sanctuary for the miraculous in a world otherwise lost to the spirit of cynicism. That's certainly the appeal of the absolutely fabulous "Little Voice," which is a kind of litany of the miraculous.

The first miracle, in a series of them, is a wrenlike Brit actress named Jane Horrocks, famous in this country in PBS circles for her role as bubble-headed Bubble, the PR gal, on "Absolutely Fabulous." But her Little Voice – so named for her muttery way of talking, but also freighted with irony – is as far from Bubble, yet as utterly believable, as could be imagined. Horrocks herself is a miracle.

Little Voice is a murky, blurry waif in an English seaside town who somehow never looks up. Even when she's there, she's not; Horrocks has the powerful ability to suggest LV's insubstantiality, as if she's really made of vapors or mirage. Her secrets only gradually become clear. The first is that she lives in a world of her own mind, a universe built of great American popular singers (Judy Garland and Shirley Bassey being the reigning queens of this land) and locks herself in her room, listening worshipfully to them on scratchy old records and rekindling a connection to her dead father, who owned a used record shop. The second is that she's an abused child.

So another great miracle of "Little Voice" is that it finds a way to be about that secret stalking horse of so much of the century's mayhem, the abuse of children, without really getting into a pulpit on the subject. LV's mum is brassy Mari, all 180 pounds of her as hydraulically inserted into elastic devices that redistribute her flesh along hourglass lines. It must hurt like hell, but Brenda Blethyn, who plays the role, doesn't let the pain show on her face. Or if she does, who could tell? – there's so much rage, vulgarity, carnal aggression, self-mythology and makeup on that mug already. It's a great comic performance, a mother whose main need is to mother herself and whose only form of expression is to destroy the frail ego of her daughter.

It's funny at first, so self-obsessed and energetic is Mari's blather, so naturally cruel and self-deludingly stupid. But you understand, as the movie progresses, that Mari can live only on the destruction of her daughter, that somehow she is addicted to it. She is a monster.

The trick of this movie is that it's so changeable: You think you've got it nailed and it slithers away to become some other new, fabulous thing. At first it seems like a working-class kitchen-sink drama and then turns into a knock-'em-dead fable of show biz while grappling with the profound theme of child abuse. For the third secret of LV is that she has talent.

I don't mean, you know, talent. I mean, Talent, Big T, the whole caboodle, that once-in-a-generation thing. Of course it's really Horrocks's talent and it's so gigantic the original play was written entirely to showcase it. But the talent is hidden behind her character's vagueness until a professional talent scout, that rippling sleaze-bag of gold-festooned, baggy-eyed, greasy corruption Ray Say (Michael Caine, at his most fabulously trashy, complete to the lizard-skin cowboy boots) hears her sing and knows it's the real thing.

In a sense, he's an abuser, too. His eyeballs flash $$$ like a winning crank of a slot machine, and so he sets out to capture LV, or rather to facilitate transfer of her cage to his possession, since she's already captured by her mother's cruelty. Seducing her mother (who is hungry to be seduced), he commandeers LV's life and arranges a night onstage in front of an orchestra for her. As I say: miraculous.

This is the best five minutes of pure film this year, with the possible (and completely contrary) exception of the beachhead sequence in "Saving Private Ryan."

Little LV wafts onto the stage like a phantasm, a puff of smoke, a spirit. She warbles a few wretched notes, and you feel her shrink even further into herself, and then the world changes entirely. LV lights up like the sky over Baghdad during the recent unpleasantness, and she blows the roof and the doors out. Horrocks, it turns out, is a world-class singer herself with a further drop-dead, pitch-perfect vocal ability to emulate the greats who came before. But it's not merely a trick of voice; she has that thing that burns in the night, that thing that even as crude an instrument as a camera can capture – the sheer ability to illuminate the room and turn the darkest of crannies into a clean, well-lighted place.

By that time, the movie has changed yet again; from the cruelty of parental abuse, it turns to another cruelty, which is the ownership of talent. Both Ray Say and Mari are monsters, but worse, parasites: Little Voice, they think, lives for them. She's a bird, to be kept for their edification. (Bird imagery predominates; not only does LV appear out of a cage onstage, but a subplot follows as Ewan McGregor, who raises pigeons, attempts to liberate her, because he and only he sees her as a human being, not a meal ticket.)

So its drama becomes a drama of will: That is, will LV find the will to escape or will she perish in the fires, both metaphorical and literal as Mark Herman's direction has it, of selfishness? And that is the theme of all of those tortured souls who pull themselves free from parents who live to crush them. It's an anthem of survival.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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