Film Review #150: Billy Elliot
Director: Stephen Daldry
Cast: Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Gary Lewis
Stephen Daldry, who switched from stage directing to movies with the Oscar-nominated Billy Elliot and went on to literary cinema like The Hours (2002), says that Billy Elliot is “not really a dance film.” Something like the 1935 Fred Astaire vehicle, Top Hat, is his idea of a dance film. There are clips from Top Hat inserted into this gritty tale of an 11-year-old miner’s son who secretly leaves Saturday boxing lessons to learn ballet, pirouetting in and out the white-tutus in the midst of the UK’s worst labor strike since World War II. Set in northeast England in 1984-85, this story does not employ clips of classic Hollywood fantasy about tuxedo-clad high society to embody Billy’s aspirations. No, they appear only as remote, grainy images flickering on the tiny TV of Billy’s addled old grandmother, whose recurrent line, regretful and longing, is, “They always said I could’ve danced professionally if I’d only had the training.”
Those old musicals trafficked in a little vaudeville melodrama, but audiences were after the escapist entertainment when Fred, Ginger and all those supporting extras took flight. Instead, Billy Elliot – though it has three or four wonderful dance sequences – repays a second look eight years later because it’s a surprisingly complex and savvy drama about how men struggle with social constraints – from wildly divergent styles of fatherhood, convictions about men’s aggressive nature that spring from hard times and class friction, and whatever largely consigning the “artistic side of life” to women comes to mean about the sexuality of artistic men.
Daldry’s cast is superior. For the title role, he reportedly combed through some 2,000 auditions to find relative newcomer Jamie Bell (now appearing in Jumper as Griffin), also a native of Billy’s northeast England, who hid the ballet aspect of this role from his own school mates during filming. Julie Walters – Molly Weasely in the Harry Potter films – plays the prickly, chain-smoking dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, who gives Billy private lessons and puts the Royal Ballet in his head. Pitch perfect as the profoundly reticent, still-grieving widower wrenched by disturbing emotion, Gary Lewis (Prime Suspect: The Final Act) is Billy’s dad Jackie.
It was a savage time. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives closed many open pit mines in the nationalized coal industry to increase efficiency and profit. Over 11,000 strikers were arrested. Ten died in the running battles with police that swept through housing projects. Swaths of northeastern England and southern Wales remain virulently anti-police. Billy gets his letter of acceptance from the Royal Ballet the same day – March 3, 1985 – that the forever-after weakened miners’ union “caved in,” ending the strike.
Daldry takes some care depicting this violence on both sides: police and strikers in ferocious, shouting tugs of war on picket lines, phalanxes of police beating their shields with batons – Billy’s rough hothead older brother Tony (Jamie Draven) is clubbed bloody – and enraged strikers pelting scab-carrying buses with eggs and rocks. The strike also caused extreme privation. Billy’s father Jackie weeps twice during this story, first when he’s forced to smash his late wife’s piano with a sledge hammer to burn the wood for heat on Christmas Eve, the second time from fear when he rides the scabs’ bus to work so he can buy Billy’s bus ticket to London. In this life – nasty, brutish and short – men fight tooth and nail, 11-year-old boys take boxing lessons, and an incensed father who’s never been to London because “they don’t have mines there” equates ballet with “poofs.”
Billy isn’t gay. That’s why Mrs. Wilkinson’s precocious daughter Debbie is in this film, starting a pillow fight with Billy that fills the air with feathers and looks forward to the sexual charge of Billy’s breathtaking leap onto stage years later in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. But his forlorn friend Michael (Stuart Wells), whom we first meet refusing to box, is. At first sharply put off, Billy’s growing comfort with Michael parallels his growing acceptance of his own desire to dance. And one of the film’s pleasures is the increasing physical affection among the Elliot men as their definitions of manliness expand and they start supporting Billy’s dancing.
The role of women in the film is less satisfying. Formerly, all Billy’s support has come from women – from Mrs. Wilkinson, from his mother Jenny’s example, from his grandmother’s love of dance. Even the pivotal question at his Royal Ballet audition, which restores this tongue-tied boy’s voice – “How do you feel when you dance?” – comes from the sole woman on the interview panel. And moved as Jackie Elliot is by how good Billy’s gotten, the deal maker is that “his mother would’ve let him.” Still, Mrs. Wilkinson disappears from the story abruptly and for good after Jackie’s conversion – I would at least have liked to see her in the final scene that gathers many of the principals together ten years later – as if Daldry insists that men must not delegate some matters.
Interestingly, the film delays powerfully muscular, masculine ballet until the end, fast forwarding to Billy at age 25 by splicing in footage of dancer Adam Cooper in Matthew Bourne’s 1995 all-male revival of Swan Lake. This production on Broadway earned Adam Cooper a Tony nomination for best actor in a musical and was extremely popular with teen-age boys, causing a minor surge in dance lessons. Young Billy’s major dance sequences – his sense of self and skill still awkward works in progress – instead rely on dazzling tap work down the bleak brick alleys of his town, danced not in toe shoes but laced-up boots, especially his raw anguish when his father at first forbids the Royal Ballet audition. We get to watch both men grow up.
This review appeared in the 2/21/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing recent films that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.