Culture » Film

Gotta Dance



Billy Elliot (R)
Universal Pictures

Billy Elliot takes its title from its main character, an eleven-year-old boy (Jamie Bell) who lives with his widowed father (Gary Lewis), older brother (Jamie Draven), and slightly dotty grandmother (Jean Haywood) in the bleak coal-mining region of Northern England. It is 1984, and the miners are on strike, making an ill-fated attempt to improve their lot against the will of England's Iron Maiden, Margaret Thatcher. Billy's dad is almost mute with grief over the loss of his wife and the bleakness of their situation, the older brother is violent and angry, and young Billy is tossed around in the angry tides of his household. It helps not at all that his dad requires he take weekly boxing lessons where he gets knocked about.

However, when a dancing school moves into the boxing gym, Billy is irresistibly drawn to the movement and the music. The dancing mistress, Mrs.Wilkinson (Julie Walters) takes him under her tattered wing, seeing in him the potential for real talent, even the possibility of a place at the Royal Ballet. This, of course, is utterly unacceptable to the men in Billy's family, who don't think ballet is a reasonable activity for a boy or man, and are prepared to back up their opinion with violence.

The plot of this film is nothing really new, clichd even: young-child-overcomes-parental-disapproval-to-follow-his-true-dreams-to-the-point-of-melodrama. But Billy Elliot manages to really shine through some tough spots with a combination of fine acting, terrific cinematography and a deep respect for the inner lives of the mute masculine characters.

First, the acting. Jamie Bell, who plays Billy, is a somewhat gangly child on the cusp of adolescence. With his skinny, long limbs and expressive face, Bell makes a beautiful transition between tough boy and almost-dancer. In one of the best sequences of the film, he dances his way across and through the bleak landscape of his city like dancing really matters. His dancing is wild, angry, free. Opposite him are a cast of adults whose lives have all turned out for the worse, and in each, the actors convey the sorrow and the panic of adult lives out of control.

Then, the cinematography. Director Stephen Daldry has made extraordinary use of the bleak northern setting, conveying the poverty and sameness of the depressed coal town with its ugly brick houses and giant slag heaps. In another remarkable scene, Billy's striking brother flees from circles of police by running into one house and another, through oceans of similar laundry hanging out to dry, each time to be met again and again by the unbreakable police lines. It is a beautiful chase scene that takes full advantage of the claustrophobic setting.

Finally, characterization. This is, in large part, a film about class, about how a middle-class woman helps a working-class boy get out of his tough situation, about how working-class men are forced to cope with their lives, about the redemption of masculinity through work and art. Never do the filmmakers patronize their characters, prettify them, nor, ultimately, underestimate them. The terrible choices that Billy's father must make as a miner, a father, a man, are shown in their full pathos with the understanding that, for these men, there is no easy way out.

If dance doesn't become a redemption, it does become a brief and beautiful counterpoint to the barrenness of the miners' difficult lives, and the final moment of the film is utterly gorgeous and inspiring.

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