“Billy Elliot” could be described as “Brassed Off” with tutus instead of trombones, or even as “Footloose” set in the mining areas of northern England, but such encapsulations would be unfairly dismissive. The picture, about a working-class teenage boy who finds personal (and social) liberation in the study of ballet–much to the initial chagrin of his eminently down-to-earth dad and brother–is, to be sure, formulaic and more than a trifle manipulative, but it’s been so deftly made and well performed that rather than being cloying and calculated, it ends up as charming and exhilarating. This could be the sleeper hit of the fall season.
The dramatic pull of the film lies in rooting for a likable protagonist overcome incredible obstacles to fulfill his dream and win almost impossible success, and since the story has a musical background, it’s comparable in effect to 1996’s “Shine,” which also warmed hearts rather than causing gastric distress in spite of its shrewd application of sentiment. The tale is set in during the coal mining strike of 1984, when the Thatcher government’s policy of closing down unprofitable sites had resulted in conflict between the highly-organized unions and police. Both the widowed father (Gary Lewis) and brother (Jamie Draven) of teen Billy (Jamie Bell) are on strike, and the lack of income turns their family, which also includes infirm and increasingly senile grandma (Jean Heywood) into a morose group and their dwelling into an exceedingly bleak place: indeed, a sequence showing an impoverished Christmas during which furniture (including the late mother’s prized piano) must be broken up for kindling is almost Dickensian. (One wonders what modern British filmmakers would do had it not been for Margaret Thatcher, whose government they take remarkable joy in excoriating at every opportunity.) Nonetheless Dad still shells out a few bob for Billy to take boxing lessons at the local club. But the boy is more interested in music than pugilism, and when a ballet class begins practicing in the gym, he gravitates toward it, despite the fact that he’s the only male who does– the sight of him, still in boxing duds, learning steps amidst a herd of tutu-clad girls is quite winning. (This represents a nice twist on the old formula, prevalent in British films from time immemorial down to the recent “TwentyFourSeven,” according to which troubled lads learn discipline from joining boxing clubs–here the club is abandoned in favor of dance clothes.) The teacher, stern but obviously maternal Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters) sees potential in him and takes the boy under her wing, while Billy conceals his new studies from his father and brother, who he knows would find them unmanly. A subplot contrasts Billy with his truly effeminate best friend Michael (Stuart Wells). The obligatory crisis erupts when Dad and Tony find out what Billy’s been up to, especially after the boy is offered the opportunity to try out for a spot in a prestigious dance academy. Can the impoverished working-class family accept and nurture the youngster’s talent, despite their own prejudices and the financial hardship it would entail? And does Billy have the stuff to succeed?
These questions are answered in ways that are really quite predictable but manage also to be touching and endearing, mostly because the cast is so talented. The standout is unquestionably Jamie Bell, a fine-featured youth who moves effortlessly from gawky to graceful as Billy’s talents are refined; this newcomer does an amazing turn, not only in terms of his dancing (which is fine, as one would expect), but also on the acting side, showing the youth’s toughness as well as his vulnerability. He’s matched by Lewis as Billy’s father; he beautifully catches the incredulity of the man at the realization of his son’s skill, and a scene in which he turns scab in a desperate attempt to make money for the boy’s tuition is surprisingly powerful. Walters, though she’s the best-known member of the cast and is top-billed, is really playing a supporting role here. Nonethless she achieves a nice combination of gruffness and understanding. Jamie Draven is good, if a trifle too broad, as Tony, while Jean Heywood keeps grandma Elliot on this side of caricature.
There are flaws in “Billy Elliot.” One long dance sequence in the streets of the town, in which the boy expresses his need to break free of the confines of his situation, goes too far in the direction of the famous barn scene in “Footloose,” even if it is well executed. The epilogue, which gives us a glimpse of Billy’s future and his family’s reaction to it, is overly pat and, to this viewer at least, rather badly staged; it strives too hard to be uplifting in every sense. But there’s so much that’s right about the picture that these are mere quibbles. And in Jamie Bell it has a young performer of such grace and poignancy that he virtually silences criticism. He may never make another film, but this one is quite good enough.