I had not seen Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliot prior to its screening at Movie Klub. However, because of its status as a surprise indie hit that got turned into a smash Broadway musical, I knew the plot:
Scottish English kid wants to study ballet dancing, even though “boys don’t do balley.” It’s not hard to make a decent movie with that premise; a lot of studios probably could do it. The problem is that it’s very hard to make a great movie with that premise, because you’re most likely to end up with an inoffensive middlebrow effort that will make people feel good but won’t really register. This movie is great, all the more so because it leaps over that difficult hurdle.
Billy Elliot (the fantastic Jamie Bell) and his family are on hard times. Billy’s mother recently died, his grandmother has moved in with the family as dementia approaches, and father Jackie (Gary Lewis) and older brother Tony (Jamie Draven) can’t find mining work because of a year-long strike that wracked Thatcher-era Britain. Billy is supposed to study boxing, but he’s terrible at it, while he is fascinated by the ballet class that shares the gym.
At first one might think that Jackie and Tony are just caricatures, barrels of testosterone who are afraid of Billy turning into a “poof.” Your average middlebrow Oscar-bait film – the sort of film that Daldry’s later efforts (The Hours, The Reader, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) have been accused of being – would not bother to flesh him out very much. It would simply settle for one scene near the end when Billy changes Jackie’s mind with dance, cut to a single tear running down Jackie’s cheek, et cetera.
This is a movie which goes deeper than that. The issue is not simply some sort of male stereotype that society imposes on Billy through his father; it turns out that a role is being imposed upon Jackie and Tony as well, and they are buckling under the pressure. Jackie cannot provide for his family, Tony cannot follow in his father’s footsteps like he’s always wanted to, and Billy’s rebelliousness is another challenge that they cannot handle. Sure, there are plenty of “what are ya, a poof?” scenes, but this is a movie which goes well beyond a brutish father spewing homophobic slurs.
In fact, let’s hold on the issue of homophobia for a second. Billy’s sexuality is questioned by many characters in the film, as would happen in real life. Billy certainly could be gay: he ignores the advances of a girl his age and he seems to share an emotional bond with a boy his age who is clearly gay and has a crush on Billy (Stuart Wells). However, “just because I like ballet doesn’t mean I’m a poof,” which Billy says at one point, is a decided non-answer to the question. Billy could be gay, or he could not be, and it does not matter one iota. The relevant love of Billy’s life is dance.
I would not say that this film is perfect, but it’s perfect when it needs to be. The music is a pretty good example. The use of some songs, such as the Clash’s “London Calling,” is entirely too on-the-nose, but at least Daldry is going out of his way to use great music. There’s also Julie Walters as Billy’s ballet coach: she’s stellar in every scene that she’s in, but she drops out of the film for a long and crucial section.
This setting, especially the strike-related elements, absolutely sell the movie. Every time it came to a non-perfect moment, a piece of background detail would catch my attention and flesh out one of the main characters. For instance, Tony has a number of weak scenes and verges on becoming a non-entity in Billy’s life at times, but he’s given a devastating scene later in the film (which Billy is not even in) where he is confronted with the sort of sacrifices that Jackie is willing to make for his family.
This movie sold me with the great scene at the end of the film where Jackie runs into the union hall and shouts with joy that his son has been accepted into the Royal Ballet School, and no one cares. The strike has been broken, Thatcher has won, and everyone is heading back to work. Other characters in the movie will have to wait for their triumph, or not have one at all. Even if it comes with the support of his family and friends, at the end of the day Billy’s victory is for him alone.
Reviewed by Mark Young