Billy Elliott moves gracefully between comedy and drama
Great Britain has always been a class-conscious kingdom, painfully aware of the subtlest distinctions between upstairs and downstairs. Demographic changes have developed new social struggles and that new tension provides a ripe source for comedy and bemused observation. Lately, a subgenre of British films turns on the incongruities between class and art, as impoverished working folk rise above their "place" through aesthetic means. Either these films involve unlikely musicians, as in Brassed Off, Little Voice and Ireland's The Commitments, or have music as a key element in public performance: Remember the blokes in The Full Monty stripping to "You Can Leave Your Hat On?" From that film's bumping and grinding comes Billy Elliott with bona fide ballet, as a British coal miner's son finds a calling in his happy feet. Uplifting and frequently funny, Billy Elliott also proves stranger than most films of its ilk, with liberal amounts of painful naturalism and self-conscious quirks.
Called Dancer in the U.K., Billy Elliott takes place in the midst of a 1984 coal strike in Durham, a mining town in the north of England. The 11-year-old title character can expect to do the same work as his rough-hewn father (Gary Lewis) and older brother, although both have stopped work to walk the picket line and scream at the scabs brought to the mine.
Fate steps in when Billy's boxing lessons are held in the same building as a ballet class, and in spite of himself, he finds himself drawn by the combination of music and movement. The film enjoys the odd-man-out sight of Billy, in boxing attire, amid the ballerinas, but the teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters) recognizes the extent of his newly kindled passion. When the Elliott men find out and voice their violent opposition (Billy's mother is deceased), Billy continues to practice without his father's knowledge.
The film initially treats ballet as a shameful secret; Billy pilfers a volume on dance from the bookmobile and hides his dance shoes as furtively as if he's concealing pornography. He adamantly denies "being a poof," pointing out that successful ballet dancers aren't necessarily homosexual. Lee Hall's screenplay proves almost too even-handed by having Billy's best friend himself be a gay cross-dresser, taking pains to deliver the message "Not that there's anything wrong with that."
Director Stephen Daldry sets a conscious and persistent counterpoint between the nonconformity of Billy's lessons and the pressures on the town during the strike. It seems as though nearly every other exterior shot has a uniformed bobby or a menacing prowl car in the background. One scene has Billy walking along, chatting with his deadpan pal Debby (Nicola Backwell), who's scraping a stick along a wall covered with handbills promoting the strike. When the wall ends she continues, without breaking stride, to scrape the stick along the riot shields of a line of police officers.
The film's musical choices can be similarly noticeable. Certainly ballet music has prominence, with the most portentous portions of Swan Lake's overture accompanying footage of England's merciless industrial landscape. But there's also plenty of Brit pop from the turn of the '80s, such as the Clash's "London Calling," the Jam's "A Town Called Malice" and seemingly every hit from T. Rex for reasons unknown, but not unwelcome.
The opening credits offer the odd, idyllic image of young Jamie Bell soaring up in the air against a wallpaper pattern, as he bounces in slow motion off an unseen mattress. Later, when his domestic situation is at its worst, Billy launches a defiant dance, leaping over walls and along alleys. It's quickly understood as a fantasy scene, with Bell's striking talent as a hoofer here meant to show the ambitions of Billy's art.
Bell conveys Billy's vulnerability and desperation at his constrained life and his need to dance, the grace he feels executing a perfect pirouette or doing a modest Fred Astaire imitation. When especially pleased, his features endearingly move in opposite directions, making a goofy mask of joy.
When Mrs. Wilkinson urges Billy to apply to the Royal Ballet school, they prepare a solo piece inspired by his own life, which employs not only ballet, but elements of tap and Irish step dancing. Walters, dark-haired, chain-smoking and nearly unrecognizable from her Oscar-nominated role in Educating Rita, is fittingly gruff but warm as one of those teachers you feel blessed to find.
Gary Lewis' blunt features can make him almost resemble a human shark, and he's the harshest of parents. But the film doesn't make him a predictable bully, and through Lewis' acting we understand the character's anxieties over the strike and his concerns for his family, which include a grandmother with a failing memory. Billy Elliott doesn't flinch from moments of brutal behavior, but also gives the characters chances to redeem themselves in credible and consistent ways.
Dance films can follow some predictable steps, with Billy's angry tap through the neighborhood evoking Footloose, and his climactic audition before inscrutable, sophisticated judges reminiscent of Flashdance's final scene. But while Billy Elliott's "gotta dance" story can ultimately raise your spirits, its examination of the strike is unexpectedly intimate, and its idiosyncratic touches stand out. You needn't prepare yourself for a complacent "feel-good" flick: Billy Elliott keeps you on your toes.