Billy Elliot

Director: Stephen Daldry
Screenplay:Lee Hall
Stars: Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot), Julie Walters (Mrs. Wilkinson), Jamie Draven (Tony), GaryLewis (Dad), Jean Heywood (Grandma), Stuart Wells (Michael), Mike Elliott (GeorgeWatson), Janine Birkett (Billy's Mum), Nicola Blackwell (Debbie)
MPAA Rating:R
Year of Release: 2000
Country: UK

Much like the art of ballet itself, BillyElliot, the story of an 11-year-old boy fromworking-class northern England, maintains an impressively delicate balancing actthroughout its duration between the whimsically comical tale of the boy's desire to be aballet dancer and the backdrop of hard-edged, violent realism against which it is set. Thefilm's tone shifts constantly, keeping the audience always on edge, yet it feels almosteffortless at times.

Billy Eliot, the titular character, is played by newcomer Jamie Bell with a mixture ofwide-eyed innocence, reluctant skepticism, and fiery intensity. Billy is an interesting andsympathetic character throughout, yet at the end of the film he has been transformed into asymbol of escape: Unlike everyone else from his neighborhood, Billy escapes theconstraints of his place on the social spectrum. The film, written by Lee Hall, does notpretend that this is somehow universal, but rather uses it to show that it is possible, andoften by means that one would not immediately consider. Hence, ballet.

The story takes place in 1984 Thatcherite England. Billy's father (Gary Lewis), a recentwidower, is a tough, no-nonsense man who earns a living, like so many others from theirsmall town, as a coal miner. Billy's older brother, Tony (Jamie Draven), is following in hisfather's footsteps as a miner. When the film opens, both of them are out of work becausetheir union is in the midst of a long, bitter strike that brings hoards of police in riot gear tothe small town everyday. The police, with their large plastic shields, helmets, and billyclubs, are an imposing presence throughout the story.

Billy's father wants him to become a boxer, but early scenes at boxing practice show thatthe thin, wiry Billy is no boxer. Instead, he gravitates toward an all-girls ballet class at theother end of the gymnasium. Director Stephen Daldry has fun in these early portions byvisually juxtaposing Billy, dressed in baggy shorts, a tank-top tee-shirt, and lace-up boxingshoes, with all the girls in the class, each of whom is dressed in a pink tutu. Billy standsout like a sore thumb, but the ballet instructor, a tough-talking, chain-smoking womannamed Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), sees that Billy has potential. He looks clumsy andout-of-step with the more practiced girls, but she recognizes that he has natural talent, andit isn't long before she is recommending that he audition for the Royal Ballet School inLondon.

The Royal Ballet School becomes the means of escape for Billy, but escape is not so easy.There are monetary concerns: The school costs money, and Billy's father is barely scrapingby because of his involvement in the strike. And, of course, there are social concerns: BothBilly's father and his brother are humiliated and incensed that Billy would want to take partin ballet. "Lads plays football ... or boxing ... or wrestling," his father implores. "Notballet."

But, because Billy Elliot is ultimately a feel-good film about reconciliation andescape, it's not much of a stretch to see where the story is going or where it will end. Thefilm makes a strong statement about the need for families to pull together in the hard times,and it makes us understand the different characters' various points of view. The oppositionof Billy's father to his pursuing ballet forces Billy to train with Mrs. Wilkinson (whobegins to serve as a surrogate mother to replaced Billy's recently deceased Mum) on thesly. Yet, Billy's father is never made into a one-dimensional authority figure. Yes, he'snarrow-minded at first, but it is obvious that it is because he is a product of hisenvironment, and the fact that he eventually comes around and realizes the opportunityballet offers Billy for a better life than he had is ultimately more telling about who he is as aman and a father.

Although it has a brief running time of just over an hour and a half, Billy Elliottouches on a number of pressing social and emotional issues, including the sexual confusionof Billy's best friend (Stuart Wells) and the middle-class family problems that plague Mrs.Wilkinson who, like Billy, uses dance as a means of escape. Billy Elliot isenjoyably lighthearted, but never simplistic about its story. The sudden moments ofviolence that infuse the film are constant reminders that, even though Billy may escape to abetter life, all is not well for everyone (there is a particularly poignant moment at the endshowing Billy's father and brother descending back into the coal mines). Yet, the characterspush on, and the film's final moments ensure us that, as much as can be, everything is rightwith the world.

Copyright ©2000 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3)

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