Foursquare in the gritty-but-heartwarming tradition of Brassed Off and The Full Monty comes Billy Elliot, the first film from noted British theatrical director Stephen Daldry. The setting is County Durham in 1984, and things “up north” are even grimmer than usual: the miners’ strike is in full rancorous swing, and 11-year-old Billy’s dad and older brother, miners both, are on the picket lines. Billy’s got problems of his own. His dad has scraped together the fees to send him to boxing lessons, but Billy has discovered a different aptitude: a…
Foursquare in the gritty-but-heartwarming tradition of Brassed Off and The Full Monty comes Billy Elliot, the first film from noted British theatrical director Stephen Daldry. The setting is County Durham in 1984, and things “up north” are even grimmer than usual: the miners’ strike is in full rancorous swing, and 11-year-old Billy’s dad and older brother, miners both, are on the picket lines. Billy’s got problems of his own. His dad has scraped together the fees to send him to boxing lessons, but Billy has discovered a different aptitude: a genius for ballet dancing. Since admitting to such an activity is tantamount, in this fiercely macho culture, to holding up a sign reading “I Am Gay,” Billy keeps it quiet. But his teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters, wearily undaunted), thinks he should audition for ballet school in London. Family ructions are inevitable.
Daldry’s film sidesteps some of the politics, both sexual and otherwise, but scores with its laconic dialogue (credit to screenwriter Lee Hall) and a cracking performance from newcomer Jamie Bell as Billy. His powerhouse dance routines, more Gene Kelly than Nureyev, carry an irresistible sense of exhilaration and self-discovery. Among a flawless supporting cast, Stuart Wells stands out as Billy’s sweet gay friend Michael. And if the miners’ strike serves largely as background color, the brief episode when visored and truncheon-wielding cops rampage through neat little terraced houses captures one of the most spiteful episodes in recent British history. —Philip Kemp
Barnes and Noble
Billy Elliot, the screen debut of British theater director Stephen Daldry, follows in the footsteps of Brassed Off and The Full Monty by combining the kitchen sink realism of a Ken Loach film with an uplifting tale of salvation through the performing arts. It’s also a poignant and often very funny coming-of-age drama enlivened by young Jamie Bell’s star-making performance in the title role. The story takes place in 1984 against the backdrop of the coal-miner’s strike in Durham County, England. It’s a place where life is hard and bleak, and men spend their spare time getting pissed in pubs and boxing at the local gym. Imagine, then, the horror of Billy’s gruff but basically good-hearted father (Gary Lewis) when he finds out that his adolescent boy, showing no talent as a pugilist, has secretly taken up ballet instead. Billy’s mentor is a chain-smoking ballet mistress, superbly portrayed by Julie Walters, who sees the spark of raw talent in the boy and risks the wrath of Billy’s homophobic dad and older brother (Jamie Driven) in order to nurture it. Making deft use of period music, with an emphasis on T. Rex, Billy Elliot celebrates the power of song and dance to liberate a person from the constraints of poverty and narrow-mindedness. Yet at the same time, Daldry finds beauty in the beleaguered mining town, with its stark light: When Billy, exhilarated by dancing, rushes through narrow streets pitched precipitously above a shimmering, pewter sea, the image reflects the inner state of a young hero poised to soar. Kryssa Schemmerling
In a movie all about contrast, a unifying element keeping the emotional content together is essential. That’s achieved by a specific method of song placement. When we see Billy joyously losing himself to the rhythms of “Children of the Revolution”, it is not just a snatch of music bridging scenes. The movie is a modern musical, and these songs have to speak literally (as well as emotionally), with lyrics that explain what no one is actually saying. A group of Marc Bolan’s classics is therefore a stroke of genius as opposed to having new songs written. The other…