Billy Elliott (15)
FEELGOOD movies rarely come any better than this brilliant character study of one child’s seemingly unattainable dreams and how he fights for them against overwhelming odds.
Billy Elliott is the low-budget British drama which took the film world by storm at Cannes this year when it was known under under its previous title of Dancer.
The dancer of the title is the son of a striking miner during the 1984 pit dispute that brought ruin to thousands. The strike is already biting hard when 11-year-old Billy opts out of the boxing classes his father pays for out of his pitiful savings.
Instead of heading for the ring, Billy – a sensational film debut by Jamie Bell – swaps allegiances and joins a ballet class run by Mrs Wilkinson in the same village hall where his dad’s pal, George, coaches the kids in boxing.
Naturally Dad (Gary Lewis), a dour Scot and committed striker, sees his son’s change of heart as a betrayal of his class, his sex and the scrimping and saving his father endures to give his boy to the only glimmer of fun which remains in the harsh climate of the strike.
But he reckons without Mrs Wilkinson and, after a heated row, Dad decides to see for himself what Billy is capable of. What he witnesses prompts a massive sea change in his temperament, and a decision to break the strike to give his child one chance of a future away from the pit…
Like The Full Monty and, to a lesser extent, Brassed Off, before it, Billy Elliott takes an overt political situation and makes it the background to a heart-warming tale which is part rites of passage, part escape to freedom.
In the form of Jamie Bell, Billy Elliott personifies the potential for something better in a damaged world. While all around him is collapsing into violence, anarchy and poverty, Billy’s gift for dance offers light at the end of a long dark tunnel of despair.
While the days of the 1984 strike are still raw for those who experienced them first-hand, in Billy Elliott it is the character of the boy – torn between family and ambition, lost within the stranglehold of poverty – who embodies both sides of an insular world.
Theatre director Stephen Daldry, here making his film debut, captures perfectly the bleakness of the miners’ situation through the eyes and aspirations of a child. Billy is the observer of all that occurs: his grandmother’s gradual mental collapse, his father’s struggle to keep house and home together, his brother’s (Jamie Draven) commitment to the strike and its hoped-for result.
Julie Walters’ whirlwind of a teacher provides, through unobtrusive support, a perfect balance to Gary Lewis’ tortured father – a performance of raw intensity which provides the film with its emotional bedrock – who, in turn, offers a portrait of the strike in microcosm.
Yet while Billy Elliott is a picture of a bleak period in modern British history – reminiscent of Ken Loach in its politics – it is never in-your-face. Instead the strike is a deliberate plot device to propel the story along, taking Billy from his North East home to the stuffy ballet halls of London and an audience before a panel of po-faced examiners who will decide his future. Will it be a case of white trash can’t dance?
If British cinema needed a signpost for future success, this is it. A phenomenal experience, Billy Elliott brings a tear to the eye without displaying a manipulative emotional edge. It looks set to take the British box office by storm and deserves every penny it rakes in.