Billy Elliot
directed by Stephen Daldry
(Universal Focus, 2000)

Deep in the coal country of northeast England lives a boy who, in the words of his coach, is "a disgrace to those boxing gloves." For 50 pence a week, all he's getting from his lessons is a fed-up dad, an exasperated coach and a bloody nose.

But then, across the gym floor in his blue-collar town, Billy Elliot spies another class: ballet. And, despite himself, he discovers a gift at the barre he never had in the ring.

Billy Elliot, hailed as one of the sleeper hits of 2000, doesn't really cover any new ground, nor is it out of the ordinary when it does venture into new territory. What it does have, though, is Jamie Bell, a winning actor whose every flush of anger, shame and excitement as Billy makes you cheer for the young dancer despite yourself.

Billy's furtive love of dance is played out against the backdrop of Thatcherite England, when his coal town is being ripped apart by the miners' strikes of the mid-1980s. And the film easily makes the point that being a striking coal miner is a desperate way to pass your days -- and isn't much worse than being a coal miner with a job.

Billy's miner dad Jackie (Gary Lewis) is aghast at his son's enthusiasm for ballet, his older brother positively abusive, and his senile grandmother little help. The one person with faith in the sometimes-awkward young man is his ballet teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters, in an Oscar-nominated role). Often frustrated by her own problems, she sees Billy's raw talent as the one shining light in a dismal town. But her dream of an audition for Billy at England's leading ballet school flies in the face of all Elliot family tradition.

Billy Elliot's strength is visible when it addresses those explosions of emotion -- Jackie's desperation to provide for his family, Billy's lonely yearning for his late mother, his friend's struggle with sexual confusion, Mrs. Wilkinson's need for something bigger in her life. At one point, when Mrs. Wilkinson confronts Billy's father, Billy's anger boils over into a freestyle dance in the streets, a wrenching expression of feeling in the only way Billy knows how.

Other movies have tackled the collision of mining life and a changing world: Matewan and Harlan County, U.S.A. for Americans, the recent Brassed Off, among others, for Britain. And others, like October Sky, look at what it's like to be a child who doesn't fit in with a mining community. But when Billy Elliot zeroes in on what it does best -- looking at Billy's need for self-expression, his conflict between family loyalty and freedom and his terror that he just might actually get what he wants -- Billy Elliot shines.

[ by Jen Kopf ]
Rambles: 12 January 2002

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