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Quirky humor from two British Imports

England has a long-established film industry, and a large potential audience for movies made on its own territory. Still, many English directors dream of success in the United States, where the word "hit" conjures up extravagant visions of fame and fortune. So the makers of Little Voice and Waking Ned Devine are surely delighted to have their pictures playing on American screens.

Not every British filmmaker dances to this tune, of course. A serious-minded cinaste like Ken Loach, who made the recent "Carla's Song" and the coming "My Name Is Joe," thinks of social value far more than commercial profit. Others will make almost any compromise to crack the American market, though, and the recent breakthrough of "The Full Monty" put enormous new energy into the trend.

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This helps explain the recent trickle of British imports with strikingly similar traits: working-class characters, plain-and-simple settings, and stories combining quirky humor with intractable human problems. Some call this a new genre, The British Unemployment Comedy, but it's really an extension of a category dating to the early 1960s when hard-hitting pictures like "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" and "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" earned international acclaim.

Update the underlying atmosphere of those classics with the sardonic ironies that helped "The Full Monty" and "Secrets & Lies" grab Oscar nominations, and you have the basic pattern for "Little Voice" and "Waking Ned Devine."

Of the pair, "Little Voice" is the more original and entertaining. The title character is a shy young woman with a gift for imitating bygone movie stars, from Marilyn Monroe to Judy Garland. She could be a star herself, but she's painfully lacking in self-confidence and stage presence.

Fortunately, help is on hand from her wildly extroverted mother and a local talent scout who's eager to capitalize on her gifts. Unfortunately, these two are natural-born losers who are more likely to squelch her talent than to nurture it.

At its best, "Little Voice" is a gently told tale of human foibles, spicing its stage-struck elements with a romantic subplot (featuring Ewan McGregor as a pigeon-loving boyfriend) and poignant suggestions that Little Voice's shyness stems from her lack of a loving father. But the movie's most boisterous assets are its star performances by Jane Horrocks as the heroine, Brenda Blethyn as her mother, and Michael Caine as the sleazy entrepreneur - three of the most dependable acting talents on either side of the Atlantic.

'Waking Ned Devine" is less imaginative and a lot more sentimental. The story takes off when two rural Irishmen find that an elderly friend abruptly died upon learning that he won the lottery.

Hoping to keep the money in their community, they organize a friendly conspiracy designed to fool the lottery officials into thinking Ned is alive and well.

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The scheme proceeds smoothly until a nasty old woman decides to demand more than her fair share of the ill-gotten loot.

Although it has an Irish veneer, "Waking Ned Devine" has a British writer-director (Kirk Jones) and star (Ian Bannen) and was reportedly filmed on British locations. While this won't matter to most US moviegoers, the picture's stereotypical acting and self-consciously cute characters may prove too cloying for comfort, and its love-story subplot seems perfunctory rather than heartfelt. For a funnier and more original tale of a town-wide conspiracy, you could see the hilarious "Local Hero" from 1983, and let Ned Devine slumber undisturbed.

* 'Little Voice,' rated R, contains sex and vulgar language. 'Waking Ned Devine,' rated PG, contains nudity. David Sterritt's email address is

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