Song of Songs

Written and directed by Mark Herman

LV, as Little Voice is known, has one remarkable gift, a perfect complement to her nearly paralyzing shyness. LV can flawlessly imitate a selection of great and seductive singers -- from Billie Holiday to Judy Garland, from Marlene Dietrich to Shirley Bassey. More astonishing than this fanciful idea is knowing that actress Jane Horrocks performs every second of her completely captivating, entirely convincing singing. Her climactic stage show is a breathtaking tour de force, all the more exhilarating because of the cocoon from which she's emerged.

Based on the play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, written expressly for Horrocks by Jim Cartwright, Little Voice features Brenda Blethyn as LV's boozy, bawdy mother, Mari, and Michael Caine as the opportunistic, unprincipled talent scout Ray Say, who accidentally discovers and immediately determines to exploit LV's talent. Factor Ray's oversized gambling debts and thugs intent on their repayment, LV's absent but idealized father and a desperate nightclub owner into the volatile mix, and eruptions must occur almost every step of the way. Supplying more lighthearted comic relief, a lovestruck telephone installer, an asocial lad named Billy (Ewan McGregor), becomes enamored of LV and, quite resourcefully, goes to some amusing lengths to get her attention.

The predictable collisions and confrontations serve merely as the necessary vehicle to showcase Horrocks, Blethyn, Caine and McGregor. Set in the northern English seaside town of Scarborough, the depressed neighborhood helps make the degenerate Ray more believable, even a bit sympathetic until he turns mean. As she proved in Secrets & Lies, Blethyn inhabits a role, clearly having a great time playing the brazen Mari with all pistons firing. (No one in decades has cried so achingly beautifully as Blethyn.) And McGregor, who appears physically transformed since Trainspotting, delicately balances shyness with flirtatious desire.

So much more the pity, then, that despite its sensational presentation, the story suffers from lack of development and complexity. Each character is telegraphed at first glance, a credit to costume designer Lindy Hemming (Naked, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Hear My Song) but a problem in a plot that gives the characters little arc. So though LV imagines her father visiting her several times, urging her to sing, his disappearance and the potentially rich backstory remain unexplored. Similarly, Ray and Mari flirt dangerously close to caricature, made resonant only because of these fine actors who are alternately funny and sad. We strain to peer behind and beyond the superficial snapshot.

Still, a handful of sly motifs thread through the film's fabric. The opening scene jolts LV awake to the strains of "Come Fly with Me"; Billy keeps homing pigeons and nervously watches and waits for his special Duane to return safely; and the final freeze frame celebrates an uncaged bird taking flight. More noisily, Mari's aggressive, earsplitting records downstairs battle LV's show tunes upstairs, best as Tom Jones' "It's Not Unusual" squares off against "That's Entertainment." Above all, watching Jane Horrocks sing her way through her repertoire is an unparalleled, heavenly pleasure.

Opens Dec. 25 at the Tivoli.
-- Diane Carson

Directed by Pat O'Connor

At the heart of Pat O'Connor's rich, bittersweet Dancing at Lughnasa lies the quaint notion that, once upon a time, people -- especially women -- whose youthful dreams were dashed, even those who lived entire lives of quiet desperation, might attain a state of grace, a kind of ascetic nobility to which the rest of the world had no access. This is no longer an easy concept to grasp, not in this era of half-empty nunneries, swift social mobility and instant gratification. Unless, of course, you happen to be a Muslim in Bosnia or a poor black anywhere in America. Then you might grasp it.

The lonely hearts of Lughnasa belong to five women who've paid the price for growing up Catholic, unlettered and unliberated in the rural Ireland of the 1920s and 1930s. The Mundy sisters, all of them unmarried, have lost their former beaus to others or to wanderlust, and their dreams to time. Now, in the summer of 1936, they count out the days on a rocky patch of farm in Donegal, knitting gloves, cutting peat and tending to a rooster and his harem of hens. The Holy Ghost might not approve, but the Mundys have also just bought their first wireless set.

The only real breadwinner is the eldest, stern Kate (Meryl Streep, complete with a brogue as thick as Guinness Stout), an upright schoolteacher who doubles as unappointed morals officer to her siblings. Maggie (Kathy Burke) plays earth mother, Agnes (Brid Brennan) frets and sweet-tempered Rose (Sophie Thompson) takes refuge in her simple-mindedness. Young Christina (Catherine McCormack) is the unfulfilled romantic of the brood and the source of the family's scandal: She's mother to an illegitimate 8-year-old named Michael (Darrell Johnston), who becomes love child to all the Mundys and, because the story is told in flashback, our faithful narrator.

Director O'Connor, whose career has been a case of hit (1987's A Month in the Country) and miss (1997's Inventing the Abbotts), does a nice job here creating just the right poignancy, giving his splendid actresses full rein and capturing the rough green beauties of Donegal. But the piece's literary roots remain more important than where the camera sits.

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