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Diva complex.

In Little Voice, Jane Horrocks is a shy girl who comes of age through music

Little Voice * Written and directed by Mark Herman * Starring Jane Horrocks, Brenda Blethyn, Ewan McGregor, Michael Caine * Miramax

The "upstairs, downstairs" myth, according to Masterpiece Theatre, had the swells clinking their Wedgwood teacups in the heavenly reaches of the house while the servants were down in the bowels, talking trashy and whooping it up with Brueghelesque abandon.

In Little Voice, staircase divisions find a metaphor in music. In her second-floor bedroom, the fragile teenage L.V. (Jane Horrocks, who played Bubble, the airhead assistant to Edina Monsoon on cable TV's Absolutely Fabulous) revels in the vintage glories of her late father's album collection--Judy, Ella, Billie, Frank--while downstairs her blowsy mom, Mari (Brenda Blethyn), shakes her booty to Tom Jones. When it comes to class, as we learned from Ab Fab, prim daughters have it all over their flashy mothers.

Draconian actors-union rules thwarted Americans from seeing Horrocks's electrifying performance in Jim Cartwright's hit London play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice as the eponymous L.V. She's a neurotically withdrawn creature who peeps like a fledgling with one foot out of the shell, but she has a secret weapon up her sleeve: She can belt a song in a myriad of diva voices. As she sells "The Man That Got Away" with echt Judy brio below the shrine of her late father's photo, there is little doubt as to whom she's singing about.

While L.V.'s heart belongs to daddy, there is a huge spot in her creator's heart for mommy. Mari is the sort of brassy Mother Bulldozer whom gay playwrights have fetishized since the year one: Think The Glass Menagerie, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, and Gypsy. In each instance the author found dual surrogates for his own misfit queer sensibility in the flamboyant matriarch and the delicate young woman, retreating from a suffocating mother love through animals, science projects, or the anthems of long-suffering divas.

If Cartwright is not a chum of Dorothy's, he's doing his damnedest to crash the sorority. As played with cringe-making brassiness by Blethyn, Mari is a wisecracking hell-on-heels who turns a phone serviceman's visit into a RuPaul stand-up routine and dresses in the sort of tight leopard and black-feathered numbers that would outtrash Joey Heatherton in her '60s prime. If anything, director-screenwriter Mark Herman has raised her octane grade for the film, deep-sixing L.V.'s dialogue in the opening scenes so that Queen Mari reigns supreme.

You have to credit Michael Caine for holding his own amid the mother-daughter fireworks, playing Mari's cheesy showbiz-agent boyfriend who smooth-talks L.V. into exhibiting her vocalese at a local dub. Standing in the kitchen in ridiculous morning-after drag nicked from Mari's closet, he's the pathetic fulfillment of Caine's womanizing Alfie 30 years later. Less lucky is Ewan McGregor, whom Herman has recruited from his previous film, Brassed Off, to play L.V.'s pigeon-loving suitor. McGregor and Horrocks are sweet together, but the actor's easy charisma is sacrificed in the overworked effort to give L.V. a kindred spirit in pariahville.

Still, it's women's day in Little Voice as Horrocks and Blethyn wail and claw for Oscar gold. The film itself is too hyper for its own good: You feel the hand of a film director working hard to wash the stage roots right out of its hair. As Herman swoops and chops and cuts to the crowd during Horrocks's big number, you want to scream from frustration and order him back to George Cukor 101 for a refresher course in how to place a diva on a pedestal.

Stuart is theater critic and senior film writer for Newsday.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Stuart, Jan
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Dec 22, 1998
Words:625
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