Billy Elliot (2000)

D: Stephen Daldry
S: Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Gary Lewis

Wonderful British comic drama which will unfortunately find itself marketed as 'the next Full Monty' when in fact it is considerably smarter and more emotionally involving than any British film has been for quite some time. It follows the adventures of a coalminer's son who longs to be a ballet dancer. Archetypal underdog/feel good material, admittedly, and the veneer of British social realism provided by setting the film during the doomed coalminers' strikes of the 1980s promises less than the film actually delivers. A cleverly balanced script by Lee Hall and deft direction by Stephen Daldry, complemented by good performances from all concerned (especially young Jamie Bell as the eponymous hero) raise it above its generic roots into something quite special.

Billy Elliot is a remarkable film not because it is 'knee-slappingly hilarious', 'provocative', 'socially relevant' or anything of the sort. It is some of these things, but for once it seems the filmmakers have not gone out of their way to make it so. Though it frequently threatens to teeter into generic categories and follow the simplest dramatic trajectory or trundle out the most clichéd situations and political sub-texts, it somehow always succeeds in sidestepping into something more interesting. It may be fanciful critical apposition to remark on it, but the film is like its subject, a dancer who grows more confident and expressive as the story progresses. It trips lightly around scenes which reek of familiar kitchen-sink/arthouse odours (class/generational conflict in working class Britain of the 1980s, sports movie/underdog mechanics about talent, training, and opportunity, meaningful elderly relatives who contribute words of eternal wisdom, etc., etc.) It skips away by focusing on the perception and reaction of its young star, whose response to the world is not merely uncomprehending fear and confusion, but a proactive form of self-expression which becomes an exuberant statement of his individuality. It also leaps over the trap of demonising particular characters, social strata, or even the forces of Government, while once again frequently threatening to do so. Instead it manages to bring the family drama to a tender but ambiguous climax (though it rewards us with a cheerful coda) in which the 'demon' father (Gary Lewis) is shown as a more fully rounded human being and the working class rebel older brother (Jamie Draven) likewise.

The film is clever without being smug. Its sneaky metaphorical references to the image of the swan allows the script to incorporate explicit references to Swan Lake, but also to touch more deeply on the fable of the ugly duckling as Billy evolves from awkward would-be working-class masculine caricature into an equally masculine but entirely different kind of person than his family could ever have expected. Swan wallpaper decorates the room of a bedroom in which he discusses his troubles with a fellow dancer. A pillow fight follows in which feathers fill the room like a blizzard of snow. All the while the process of his development is linked with the quest by local dance teacher Julie Walters to provide him with an opportunity to grow and change. In a reversal of her famous role in Educating Rita, it is she who here must sand back and watch her prodigy take on a life of his own. The script is even more delicate in how it handles this though, allowing the boy's immediate family to re-emerge in the last act in an entirely appropriate, believable, and meaningful way.

There are as many narrative lapses as their are story twists here. Hall and Daldry realise that the broad strokes of this story are well familiar from generic forebears, and thus move from moment to moment, season to season, and mood to mood as the drama requires it rather than according to the demands of some kind of dogged devotion to the mechanics of social realism. It is nonetheless an authentic vision of time and place, and though it incorporates the miners' strike quite literally into the background, this somehow does not feel like a forced political juxtaposition for the benefit of the intelligentsia. There are also some interesting sub-plots and character vignettes, especially those involving Billy's classmate Michael (Stuart Wells), who has a destiny of his own which raises interesting questions about sexuality which creates a counterpoint those about Billy himself.

In some ways it is an interesting companion piece to both The Full Monty and East is East, but it is ultimately as different from them as they are from each other. Daldry's film is the most sophisticated of the three, and though it lacks the crowd-pleasing belly laughs, it will appeal to those who have admired these and their like in recent British cinema. It is certainly well worth seeing. Although it will be equally at home on a television screen (it is a BBC co-production), there are remarkable visual moments scattered throughout and there is a certain pleasure to be had from watching the unfolding of the spectacle of dance itself which mainstream cinema has been deprived of for far too long. Bell shows great grace and poise in the dancing scenes, and the audience has no trouble believing in his transformation into Adam Cooper at the coda.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.