(director: Stephen Daldry; screenwriter: Lee Hall; cinematographer: Brian Tufano; editor: John Wilson; cast: Julie Walters (Mrs. Wilkinson), Gary Lewis (Dad, Jackie Elliot), Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot), Jamie Draven (Tony Elliot), Stuart Wells (Michael), Jean Heywood (Grandma), Nicola Blackwell (Debbie Wilkinson), Adam Cooper (Billy, aged 25); Runtime: 109; Universal Pictures; 2000-UK)
“A predictable story.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A contrived “feel good” film set in a depressed coal mining town of Northeast England in 1984. It results in a predictable story about 11-year-old Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) who is forced by his gruff, striking coal miner father (Gary Lewis) to take boxing lessons. The striking coal mining town is an armed camp of faceless police covered by transparent-plastic shields and dressed in riot gear due to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s decision to close some mines because they are losing money. The police are always present on the streets and add a grim reminder of how the town resembles a police state. Billy’s glum family consists of his embittered, widowed father, his roughneck older brother Tony (Draven) who is also a striking coal miner and with whom Billy shares a room, and Billy’s senile granny (Heywood), who wishes out loud that she could have been a dancer.
Billy is no good as a boxer and one day by chance a girls’ ballet class shares the floor with his boxing class, as their space is being used by the strikers for a soup kitchen. The chain-smoking, crabby teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), proudly wears her middle-class status like a soldier wears his medals. She allows him to join her class whereby he starts secretly attending on a regular basis, giving her the 50 pence his dad gives him for boxing lessons. In return, she will act as his surrogate mother and private ballet tutor, encouraging him to audition for a national ballet school.
When dad discovers that Billy is taking ballet lessons he goes ballistic and asserts that only “poofs” take ballet, it’s a homosexual thing and not for real men. This is also shown to be the prevailing opinion of every other coal miner in town–that it’s something only for the lassies. As a result, Billy goes out of the way to indicate that he’s heterosexual but he also shows that he has nothing against homosexuals.
As an answer to his angry dad, Billy lets his dancing do the talking as he shows off what he learned in ballet and how excited about it he is — exuberantly dancing on the red brick project’s rooftop of his public housing complex and down his neighborhood’s steep inclined street facing the ocean. This was the most energetic scene in the film and the only one that kept me fully awake, as the kid convinced me he could dance with pep.
As the kid stands up to his dad and brother, and they are shown to be worn-out from the frustrations of the failing strike, the proud father reconsiders his position and goes to see Mrs. Wilkinson in her home which is on the other side of the tracks, to tell her he doesn’t want charity from her that he will take care of his child’s expenses and take him to London for an audition to the Royal Ballet School. It turns out dad is really good-hearted and realizes that Billy has a good chance of escaping the mines and decides to fully back him. This is what the audience wants to hear and over the bleak background of the strike, the most exciting moment in the story is waiting for the letter to arrive from the London ballet school admitting him.
In the last scenes it shows Billy as a grown man of 25 starring onstage with his proud dad and his brother in the audience watching him leap in the air to begin the show, as he does it with the same electric charge he showed as a kid. The film ends showing that the miners have been forced in humiliation to return to work without a settlement, as their union caved in. In the final contrived shot, dad is seen going down into the mine with the other workers. It makes for a story that is all too familiar, except to note that Jamie Bell was outstanding as the determined kid who made up his mind to express himself by doing his thing. Julie Walters did a good job of showing how she separated herself from the working-class and lived for culture. Julie was able to bare more of herself than being just a pushy teacher getting her student prepared for a more stimulating life, as she is someone who has to brace herself daily for her unfulfilled marriage and for enduring the lack of culture in her hometown.
REVIEWED ON 3/25/2001 GRADE: C-