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Billy Elliot

Of the many labor disputes that have disrupted Great Britain in the 20th century, among the most vitriolic was the National Union of Mineworkers strike of 1984. A response to the government's proposed closure of several coal pits considered to be "unprofitable," the miners' walkout put thousands of men on the picket lines, while those who dared to cross them faced threats and intimidation. The pit closures had the greatest effect in the northern counties of England, where coal was plentiful and the primary industry of many towns and cities. At that time, as in generations before, mining was both a dangerous trade and an emblem of manhood — thankless work that offered little pay, while some miners paid for the electricity-producing coal with their lives. And it seems that the north of England itself has always been synonymous with traditional masculinity — pubs don't get much more proud and working-class than in Manchester, Newcastle, or Durham, and the football fans are as zealous as they come. All of which is why County Durham is such a perfect setting for Billy Elliot, Stephen Daldry's captivating film about one young boy and his refusal to be constrained by the traditions that surround him. Jamie Bell stars in the film as the title character, an 11-year-old lad (in 1984) who lives with his father Jackie (Gary Lewis) and older brother Tony (Jamie Draven), both Durham coal miners. Billy's mother died in recent years, and his grandmother — who also lives with the family — is growing senile. And since Jackie and Tony are caught up in the miners' strike — picketing their local pit while awaiting word on the strike's progress — the imaginative Billy spends a lot of time by himself. In order to give Billy some direction, the out-of-work Jackie manages to gather together 50 pence a week to pay for boxing lessons, although it is soon apparent that the scrawny, introspective youth has no talent (or desire) for the sport. But as the strike has taxed the resources of the town, the local ballet class — taught by the brusque, chain-smoking Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters) — is forced to relocate to the boxing gymnasium. If the rest of the boys are mildly put out, Billy is somewhat intrigued by the class (which he can only hear), and before long he secretly joins as its sole male student. Soon Mrs. Wilkinson takes a keen interest in her new charge, whom she eventually thinks is talented enough to audition for the Royal Ballet Academy in London. But it's hard to keep a secret in a small town, and before long Billy's father demands that his son stop attending the class immediately. After all, boys do not learn ballet — and especially not in Durham.

*          *          *

On first viewing, it's tempting to dismiss Billy Elliot as a shameless bit of feel-good filmmaking — indeed, the overall arc of the plot is fairly predictable, and many of the supporting characters border on boilerplate stereotypes, in particular the temperamental, intransigent father and the equally hard-nosed dance instructor. And the tale itself has been told and re-told many times over (gifted young dreamer must overcome social- and class-prejudices to achieve a lofty goal). One need only spin the DVDs of October Sky and Girlfight for similarly uplifting stories, and Billy Elliot contains echoes of the wildly popular The Full Monty as well, with that film's working-class northern men and their ludicrous strip-tease ambitions. But the reason why Billy Elliot ultimately is so hard to dismiss is because, despite the formula, it's so damn appealing. Extraordinarily so, in fact. Daldry — a veteran of many London stage productions, but directing his first film (for which he earned an Oscar nod) — displays both a visual flair and a keen ability to capture human drama. And that drama comes from a solid script (written by Lee Hall), that goes in a few unexpected directions. While it would be easy (and tempting) to write Billy Elliot as a dance film, with a talented young man mastering his craft, a lot of the fine details of ballet are overlooked altogether. Billy Elliot is not about dancing per se — it's about the struggle of nonconformity, and the invaluable support of a family unit in any endeavor. Indeed, when Billy's hot-headed brother Tony — the family's most vocal critic of "poofs" and ballet dancers — is the last to join Billy's cause, he notes in his grudging, laconic way "Dad's right — mam would have let you do it." Opposing the ballet may uphold a contrived code masculinity — but Tony also notices that he has undermined his own family in the process. It's a theme that the film's poignant coda, set years in the future, marvelously underscores. Universal's DVD edition of Billy Elliot features a crisp anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1. Features include "Billy Elliot: Breaking Free," a 22-minute promotional documentary with comments from all of the film's principals, production notes, and the theatrical trailer, while a look at the script and a photo gallery are on board as DVD-ROM content. Keep-case.
—JJB



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