I feel a song coming on

Jane Horrocks saves the annoyingly noisy 'Little Voice' with uncanny impressions of Garland, Dietrich and Monroe

Published December 4, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

You can probably count on the fingers of one hand the actresses and performances that engender the same feeling that Jane Horrocks does in the title role of "Little Voice." Horrocks is keeping company here with Shelley Duvall in "Thieves Like Us," Sissy Spacek in "Carrie," Molly Parker in "Kissed" -- all of those performances that fill you with a mixture of protectiveness and astonishment. There's something tentative, a tad unformed, about these wide-eyed girls: They might be taking in the life around them while perched on a lily pad. And though they're all playing wallflowers, they're about as ordinary as posies blooming on Jupiter.

In "Little Voice," adapted by director Mark Herman ("Brassed Off") from Jim Cartwright's play "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice" (in which Horrocks starred in London), Horrocks is working with a lot less than those other actresses. Little Voice, "LV" as she's known, has been so damaged by her father's death and by being forced to live with her blowsy, boozing, man-hungry mother that she barely speaks. The only way she can express herself is by endlessly listening to her dead father's beloved records. He adored female vocalists -- Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey, Marilyn Monroe -- and LV has listened to his discs so obsessively that she can do note-perfect imitations of them. They've become her voice.

Cartwright nicked the idea of a character who can express herself only through popular songs from Dennis Potter's "Pennies from Heaven." And it might not have mattered so much that LV is less a character than a conceit if Cartwright had chosen to do the whole play in that expressionist style. But he's pilfered from Shelagh Delaney, too. The relationship between LV and her mother, Mari, is a coarse, crass rewrite of the mother-daughter scenes in "A Taste of Honey," and Cartwright's third-hand kitchen-sink realism cancels out the fairy-tale quality he tries for elsewhere. It's a play of glaringly obvious symbolism and even more obvious foreshadowing. And for a playwright who's chosen one of life's outsiders for his heroine, Cartwright has a cheap view of humanity; almost all the characters, even the victimized ones, eventually give in to their worst impulses, and he presents those moments smugly, as if to say, "I knew it all along."

Herman hasn't thought through any of these contradictions. A stray moment of three people standing in a moonlit street listening to LV channeling the voice of Garland suggests how the material might be done simply and affectingly. But he's made the usual stupid mistake that occurs when plays are transferred to the screen. Assuming that a stage play can't be "cinematic" (he says as much in the movie's press material), Herman falls back on the typical nonsense of opening the play up, racing the camera hither and thither -- that is, when he's not jamming it down his actors' tonsils.

Herman's idea of working-class realism appears to be to set his characters in the shabbiest surroundings his production team can muster and then get them screaming at each other. He can't allow a scene to end on a quiet note, as when the small-time promoter Ray (Michael Caine) talks LV into performing in a local club, without punching it up. As Mari, Brenda Blethyn appears to feel the need to punch up every line. She dissipates all the good will she earned for "Secrets and Lies" in about two minutes. To be fair, the role isn't written so that the audience will sympathize with Mari's desperation, the fear she feels when she realizes that Ray is more interested in profiting from LV's talents than he is in her. But Blethyn plays the character as a screeching shrew. It's like watching a stage performance that hasn't been modulated for the screen, though even on stage Blethyn would be disastrously over the top. Mari is grotesquely bawdy, but every howl of strained laughter, every overemphasis Blethyn puts on Mari's terrible jokes and bad puns ("electrickery") -- all choices encouraged by Herman -- is directed right at the audience. There's no inner life to the character, just a catalog of mannered effects.

Blethyn nearly takes Caine down with her. In their scenes together, he's broad and coarse in a way I wouldn't have thought possible. He regains his usual warm subtlety in his scenes with Horrocks. Ray is written as a schemer who's interested in LV only for the money she can earn
him. Caine subverts that. As much as possible, within the confines of the script and Herman's direction, Caine plays Ray as a man truly amazed by LV. Even when he's using it to get what he wants, the gentleness Ray shows her feels genuine. When he listens to her sing, he seems to be rediscovering what those singers meant to him, the ability of pop music to transport you.

And we're invited to rediscover it, too. Cartwright wrote the role for Horrocks because he knew of her amazing abilities as a mimic. When I first heard her singing "Over the Rainbow" here, I was certain she was lip-synching. Her impressions of Garland, Dietrich, Billie Holiday and Marilyn are so uncannily accurate they're eerie. What she does, though, goes far beyond mimicry. She's not just impersonating those singers, she's impersonating them in character, as LV. Watching LV kneel in her
bedroom before her little portable record player, poring over the covers of her dad's records as if they were talismans, calls up the wonderfully
fetishistic nature of pop fandom. At one time or another, we've all had that relationship with the records we love. And when Horrocks performs in
the voices of the singers LV adores, we're watching someone live out the inevitable fantasies pop-music fans have of making that sound themselves, of spilling out everything that's bottled up inside them and being loved for doing so. It's impossible to take the familiar songs and personas for granted as Horrocks performs them. She makes them seem fresh by getting down to their essence. We can hear that what attracts LV to Judy Garland is Garland's tremulous, nearly apologetic overemotionalism, that what endears Marilyn Monroe to her is the neediness beneath Marilyn's cuddly naughtiness.

To point up Cartwright's central metaphor, Herman makes LV even more monosyllabic than she is in the play. I wished he'd given Horrocks more to do in her scenes with Ewan McGregor as the telephone repairman's apprentice who falls for LV. (It's a nothing role, but McGregor's sweetness, as when he tenderly kisses the head of one of his ailing carrier pigeons, is undeniable. He seems to show another side of himself in each new performance.)

I don't know when I've seen such a bad movie with a performance as sensational as the one Horrocks gives here. The most frustrating thing about "Little Voice" is that Horrocks' performance doesn't have the presentation -- and thus the shape -- it might have if she'd been working with a director who didn't feel the need to create such a ruckus around her, who didn't consistently cut away from her at the crucial moments. Herman lands Horrocks in a predicament perilously close to LV's: She has to make herself heard while all sorts of flapdoodle threatens to drown her out. That she manages to do so is just one more marvel in a performance rich with them.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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