Billy Elliot (United Kingdom, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Taking its clue from recent British imports like Brassed Off! and The Full Monty, Billy Elliot combines whimsy, comedy, and socially-conscious drama into a crowd-pleasing whole. Although neither revolutionary in its approach or subject matter nor seamless in its storytelling, Billy Elliot nevertheless manages to sketch the lives of characters we come to care about. Its appeal lies in the way it draws the audience into a bond with the protagonist and the manner in which it avoids painting the supporting players with one brush. The men, women, and children inhabiting the world of Billy Elliot come alive.

That world is Thatcher's United Kingdom, where the coal miners are on strike and the police are mobilized daily to put down potential riots. Scabs who cross picket lines are in bodily danger, and only the presence of numerous armed officers keeps the conflagration from exploding. Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) is an 11-year old boy whose life has been turned upside down by the strike, since both his father, Jackie (Gary Lewis), and his brother, Tony (Jamie Draven), are among those currently not bringing home a paycheck. While they're out manning the picket lines, Billy is left home to care for his senile grandmother. His own mother is recently deceased and Billy, who visits her grave regularly (with scissors in hand to trim the grass around the headstone), misses her more deeply than he is willing to admit.

Billy Elliot begins in much the same manner as many movies about amateur boxing providing a valuable outlet for youthful aggressions. But Billy is inept in the ring, and he soon finds his attention wandering to a ballet class that is being taught within the walls of the same gym. At first, Billy simply watches as the teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), puts her students through the moves, but it isn't long before he's paying fifty pence per lesson and learning that he may have the raw ability to succeed in an audition for the Royal Ballet School. Unfortunately, while dancing may be Billy's dream for himself, it's not his father's. When Jackie finds out what his son has been up to, he explodes with the expected testosterone-induced reaction: "Lads do football, boxing, or wrestling - not friggin' ballet!" He questions Billy's sexuality and demands that he immediately cease having anything to do with Mrs. Wilkinson and her classes.

Although the film contains a few unpolished dance sequences, Billy Elliot is about characters and family relationships, not about the craft of dancing. It's about a father making the necessary sacrifices to re-connect with his son, and about a boy finding the courage to pursue his dreams. Even the movie's tertiary relationships - such as Billy's friendship with Mrs. Wilkinson's daughter, Debbie (Nicola Blackwell) and his interaction with the sexually ambiguous Michael (Stuart Wells) -- are developed in a believable manner.

Billy Elliot's secondary plot deals with the struggles of the coal miners to obtain fair wages and benefits. The sense of poverty and social injustice that this brings to the film increases Billy Elliot's dramatic heft. While lacking the powerful-yet-subtle approach of a master like Ken Loach, first-time director Stephen Daldry gets his points across without becoming overly preachy. It's clear what his stance on the issue is, but he avoids most of the obvious melodramatic traps. To his credit, he finds a tone that allows him to weave more serious issues into a lighter fabric without jarring the viewer. The most effective scene concerning the strike is one in which Jackie, a lifelong union supporter, crosses the line because he needs the money to support his family.

The acting is of consistently high quality, and is one of the reasons why the movie is as effective as it is. Billy Elliot wins over viewers because of its characters, not its plot, and these individuals are imbued with life by the actors inhabiting their skins. Newcomer Jamie Bell infuses Billy with boundless enthusiasm. He's a raw talent, but it's impossible not to be impressed by the way he throws himself into the role. Gary Lewis, recently seen as Shanks in Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe and as the elder brother in Orphans, brings a quiet dignity to his passionate portrayal of Jackie, the man who would be the film's villain if he wasn't so human. And screen veteran Julie Walters lends her support as solid, determined Mrs. Wilkinson, who will not allow Billy's talent to go wasted and unrecognized.

Although Billy Elliot doesn't exactly fall apart at the end, the final twenty minutes, all of which transpire in London, represent the movie's weakest segment. With an audition that recalls Jennifer Beals' in Flashdance, Billy Elliot moves out of the tricky, murky waters of family dynamics and into the realm of formula plot development. Then there's a brief epilogue which, while not adding anything new to the story, provides a satisfactory sense of closure. Billy Elliot ends on a high note that will have many movie-goers smiling as they leave the theater.

Billy Elliot (United Kingdom, 2000)

Director: Stephen Daldry
Cast: Jamie Bell, Gary Lewis, Julie Walters, Jamie Draven, Jean Heywood, Stuart Wells, Nicola Blackwell
Screenplay: Lee Hall
Cinematography: Brian Tufano
Music: Stephen Warbeck
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2000-10-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1