Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
December 18, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

Jane Horrocks is one spooky lady.

As the title character in Little Voice, the British import that’s been hailed as this year’s Shine, Horrocks sits hunched over in mute misery, listening endlessly to recordings of American torch singers in her drab, Northern England room. But then, after almost half an hour of suffering in silence, she opens her mouth to sing, and becomes Judy Garland, with the same creaks, cadences, and heartache. As a girl held prisoner by shyness but exploited by her greedy mother for her oddball talent, Horrocks also delivers haunting, dead-on imitations of Shirley Bassey, Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, and even the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz. It’s a performance that makes you want to escort Horrocks, 34, either into a mental ward or onto Oscar’s podium.

The film’s distributor, Miramax, is hoping for the latter and is pushing Horrocks as a possible Best Actress candidate. She’s surrounded by some fine thespians: Brenda Blethyn — an Oscar nominee for 1996’s Secrets &amp Lies — as Little Voice’s treacherous mother; Oscar winner Michael Caine as a skeevy, gold-bedecked agent who wants to make the girl a star; and Ewan McGregor as her shy suitor. But it’s Horrocks’ nearly speechless part that has critics talking.

Little Voice began in England as The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, a 1992 play written for Horrocks by Jim Cartwright, who first heard her impressions when she starred in his 1987 play, Road. After Little Voice‘s acclaimed eight-month run, Horrocks declined the invitation to follow the play to New York, turning her attention to television (playing the aptly named Bubble for two years on Absolutely Fabulous) and back to the stage (before director Sam Mendes revived Cabaret on Broadway, he cast her as Sally Bowles in his acclaimed London production). When Brassed Off director Mark Herman approached Horrocks about reprising Little Voice on screen, she was as reluctant as the character.

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