Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
Stephen Daldry is certainly a director about whom we will be hearing a great deal in the years ahead. With two outstanding successes in his first two feature films, Billy Elliot (2000) and The Hours (2001), his future film work will be eagerly anticipated. Daldry was already a highly regarded theater director before transitioning into filmmaking.
Historical Background: Stephen Daldry was born in May, 1960, in Dorset, England. He began performing in youth theatre in Taunton, England while he was at Sheffield University. He worked at one time as a clown in a circus. He completed a theater apprenticeship (1985-88) at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield and then moved to London, where he began directing plays (1990-92) at the offbeat Gate Theater. He was then appointed artistic director of the Royal Court Theater (1992-97), where he directed more than 100 plays, including a highly successful revival of Priestley's An Inspector Calls, which won a Tony Award when it played on Broadway in 1994.
Daldry's first film work came in 1998, with the short Eight, which received a BAFTA nomination. His debut feature film was the present one, Billy Elliot (2000), which won both praise and condemnation from critics, for its highly emotional approach to the story of a boy in a mining community who wants to be a ballet dancer. He followed that auspicious beginning with The Hours (2001), an adaptation of Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and starring such well-known performers as Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Ed Harris. He received a nomination for the Best Director Oscar for that film. Daldry has a number of projects either in the works or announced, at present, including The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (in production), Everest (announced), and The Corrections (in production).
The Story: The time is the Thatcher England of 1984, with its union-busting orientation. The place is Everington, a coal-mining town, in Durham county, where men are expected to drink and fight, in whichever order they prefer. Eleven-year-old Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) is son of a former boxer, Jackie (Gary Lewis), whose father was also a boxer. Billy is provided with a pair of hand-me-down gloves and lessons at 50 pence per week. Fifty pence doesn't come easily to the family because the coalminers are currently on strike. The lessons don't come easily for Billy, either. He's good at prancing about the ring but doesn't care much for the punching part. Billy has happy feet and loves nothing more than dancing secretly in his bedroom to his brother's recordings of British rock groups, like T. Rex. When Billy's in the ring and sees a group of young girls in their tutus taking ballet class on the other side of the gymnasium, Billy is distracted just long enough to take a hard right to the jaw.
Pretty soon, Billy has found his way to the other side of the gym. At first, he just watches, but Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), the feisty and irreverent teacher, invites him to join in. Soon he's doing demi-plies, arabesques, and pirouettes with the best of them until his father finds out and launches into a tirade: "Ballet's for girls, not for lads, boy. Lads do football or boxin' or wrestlin', not friggin' ballet!" Billy and Mrs. Wilkinson arrange things so that Billy can continue his lessons in private, without his father's knowledge. She thinks he has enough talent to audition for the Royal Ballet School.
There's more than one interesting subplot. Billy's mother died a short while before the film begins and both he and his father miss her badly, though neither really knows how to verbalize his sense of loss. Billy tends his mother's gravestone and the father just storms about, in a perpetual snit. Billy also has a much older brother, Tony (Jamie Draven), who's a miner like his father and involved in the strike. He and some of the other young strikers turn to violent activity, which brings in the riot police. Other subplots involve Billy's relationships with his two best young friends. One is Mrs. Wilkinson's daughter, Debbie (Nicola Blackwell), with whom he has a pillow fight and experiences a bit of a sexual awakening. "If you want, I'll show you me fanny," she says to him, later on. Debbie's family life is less than idyllic as well, her father being an alcoholic. "He's always pissed," she says. Once he pissed himself because he's unhappy, because they sleep in separate beds. Dad did it with this woman from work, but they don't think I know." Debbie asks Billy if he fancies girls. He simply replies, "I don't know, I never thought about it."
Billy also has a friend named Michael who's a cross-dresser and either gay or headed in that direction, depending on how you define such things. Michael encourages Billy to try on some lipstick. Later, Billy says to Michael, "Just because I like ballet doesn't mean I'm a poof." Then he smiles and says to Michael, "Come on, then." Billy understands what it means to be different and accepts Michael just as he is, even if he can't reciprocate. For his part, Michael cheers Billy on in his dancing interest, while hoping it won't mean that his best friend will be going away.
The major subtext of the story is the pervasive British class structure and class conflicts, exemplified by the striking miners and the brutal riot police. Tony gets arrested and then bailed out by his father. The class issue is also readily apparent when Jackie and Billy ultimately pay a visit the Royal Ballet School with its magnificent ornate staircases and railings and the officious pretensions of the judges at the audition. Tony and Jackie ultimately come around to supporting Billy's talent, basically because they see it as a way for him to make a better life for himself than the one they are locked into. Jackie even pawns some of his wife's jewelry to pay for the trip to London for the audition.
Themes: The obvious theme of this film is realizing one's potentials and not letting yourself be intimidated or held back by limitations relating to social labels. The plot and several of the subplots each touch of that primary theme, from different angles. Gender expectations and constraints are the central example, but class constraints and sexual orientation issues are never much beneath the surface. (Sexual orientation is really a subcategory of gender expectations, but it's of such fundamental importance to society that it is typically viewed as a separate issue.) A boy or girl might have an interest in one, two, or several activities or aspects of identity that society typically assigns to the other gender. Cross-dressing is an especially visible example, but there are many others: guys who enjoy cooking or sewing, gals who want to box or talk football. We all lose when a person feels constrained by peer pressure from developing some of their qualities or interests based on arbitrary gender expectations. The film then extends the concept to barriers based on social class. If a person from a working class background or poverty has an aptitude for physics, ballet, or high finance, that potential will usually never be realized. The police are seen lurking in the background in many scenes of this film (even those having nothing to do with the strikers), which effectively reminds us that the constraints of society are always close at hand.
This is the kind of film that ought to be seen by every child, during the 6th through 9th grades, especially those who are disadvantaged by social class or poverty, so as to help ensure that their minds will be opened up to the idea of pursuing their aspirations. The film's "follow your dreams" message may be clichéd but it is a cliché that needs to be repeated every few years so that each generation of pre-adolescents can get the benefit of encouragement for their ambitions. Unfortunately, this film is rated "R" in the United States and, since it is also an "art film," the R-rating has the effect of ensuring that relatively few youngsters will see it. It is particularly ridiculous that the R-rating is based on neither sexual content nor violence (there is none of the first and little of the second), but merely a consequence of repeated use of the F-word and its variants and a few other words from the uncouth vernacular. So, to protect adolescents from hearing a few of the words that they hear and speak dozens of times in an average day, the censors have opted to deprive those youngsters of what could be a highly valuable lesson in life.
The issues in relation to sexual orientation are managed complexly. Billy has his moments when he worries about being branded as gay because he enjoys dancing. The very act of defending oneself against an assumption that one is gay reinforces the notion that to be gay is something of which one should be ashamed. Billy simply likes dancing. Whether he's gay or not gay should be irrelevant in relation to his enjoyment of dancing. Although some youngsters understand intuitively their sexual orientation (one way or the other) before they become overtly sexual, many, like Billy, just don't think very much about sex or partner preference before sexual awakening brings awareness of both interest and orientation. I like the choice that the film makes to leave ambiguous what Billy's orientation might ultimately be, later in life.
Production Values: The screenplay for this film was written by Lee Hall. Daldry was so excited by the dialog and the story that he specifically chose the script for his debut feature film. Even though some of the plot elements are standard and predictable (and have been used before in such films as Flashdance (1983),Dirty Dancing (1987), and Save the Last Dance (2001)), both the main and supporting characters are given such clear identities that the film has the feel of novelty. None of the characters are all good or all bad. Jackie Elliot is the closest thing to a villain in the film, at the beginning, but proves to be a highly supportive father, once he overcomes his narrow-minded bigotry. Billy and Debbie Wilkinson are the closest to heroes, but both are brash and crude at times.
Although the themes of this film are realistic, the style of the dialog, acting, and cinematography stretch over into the arenas of fantasy and surrealism. There are some wonderful flourishes. There's a little blond girl who is seen repeatedly, like a recurrent motif, hanging around on the street outside of the Elliot's home, as one or more of the main characters walks by. There's an excellent delineation of how children see the world when Debbie is dragging a stick along a wall, as she and Billy walk past it. Suddenly, in a gap between blocks of tightly packed apartment buildings, they pass a phalanx of policemen decked out in riot gear, holding plastic shields, and Debbie continues to drag her stick over the succession of shields. Otherwise, she and Billy take no notice of the men.
Why reviewers don't talk more about the superlative cinematography of this film is beyond me. There're plenty of blue skies in the background and interesting backlighting effects through rear windows. Several of the dance scenes are beautifully surreal. Billy does a magnificent bit of foot stomping that takes place partly in a toilet stall, then on some rooftops, and culminates in an alleyway with corrugated steel walls. We understand that the lad is kicking up a fuss against the boundaries he is experiencing in relation to his class and gender, but it's all done so poetically. There's a magnificent bit of symbolism when Jackie has to chop up his deceased wife's piano to use as firewood to get through the cold winter. The riot that leads ultimately to Tony's arrest is choreographed in a manner that compromises between the expressiveness of ballet and the realism of social clashes. The collage editing is superlative. We see, for example, Billy practicing in the bathroom and bedroom of his home intercut with the results of his effort in Mrs. Wilkinson's classes. Daldry likes to use the tactic of cutting away visually from a scene while continuing the dialog or sound for a few seconds into the new scene.
The soundtrack is full of delightful music, from rock songs by T. Rex (especially "Cosmic Dancer"), The Jam, The Style Council, and The Clash, as well as some delirious music from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. The dialect for the dialog is fascinating but sometimes difficult to understand. I suggest watching the film with the English subtitles on. You'll get a lot more out of it.
The cast of mostly unknowns delivers outstanding performances. Jamie Bell, as Billy, succeeds admirably both as a dancer and as an actor. His energy never flags. Bell later appeared in the film Nicholas Nickleby (2002). Gary Lewis has a face and a pair of eyes that grab your attention, especially when he's angry and upset, which is most of the time. Lewis appeared elsewhere in Carla's Song (1996), My Name Is Joe (1998), Orphans (1999), and Gangs of New York (2002). Jamie Draven is excellent as brother Tony. Julie Walters, perhaps the best known of the performers, is very colorful as Mrs. Wilkinson. Walters's resume includes Educating Rita (1983) and Prick Up Your Ears (1987). Nicola Blackwell and Stuart Wells were outstanding in the adolescent roles of Debbie and Michael respectively.
Bottom-Line: The extras on the DVD include a featurette called Billy Elliot: Breaking Free on the making of the film, production notes, cast and crew bios, and the theatrical trailer. This is a heartwarming and exhilarating film. I whole-heartedly recommend it. I particularly recommend it for kids age eleven and up, despite the R-rating. It's a great combination of fantasy, social conscience, comedy, and drama.
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for Groups
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older