Friday 4 October 2019

Movie Review: Billy Elliot (2000)

A drama and comedy about chasing dreams amidst economic hardship, Billy Elliot sparkles with good intentions and a mischievous glint in the eye.

It's 1984, and England is in the grips of a raucous miners' strike. In the small mining town of Everington in County Durham, eleven year old Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) witnesses the struggle of his out-of-work father Jackie (Gary Lewis) and older brother Tony (Jamie Draven) as they join the daily picket line protests against replacement "scab" workers. Billy's mother is dead, and the family live in a cramped house with grandma (Jean Heywood) in a working class neighbourhood.

Billy loves to dance, and instead of boxing lessons he starts to sneak into the ballet class run by the seemingly jaded Sandra Wilkinson (Julie Walters). She spots potential in his enthusiasm, and encourages him to attend a Royal Ballet School audition in Newcastle. But when Jackie discovers what his son is up to, he demands that the ballet lessons stop, forcing Billy to either obey his father or pursue his burgeoning passion.

The film that spawned the hit musical, Billy Elliot is a grounded story of hope flickering within the ashes of a community's despair. Touching on themes of old-fashioned masculinity equating men dancing ballet with homosexuality, the inter-generational divide, and nondescript towns making the difficult transition from resource extraction to a more diverse future, writer Lee Hall charts a tender coming-of-age story.

Just as the adolescent Billy is a product of his environment, the film takes deep breaths from its stark and unscrubbed mining community. Director Stephen Daldry makes the bold decision to keep the language rough and real throughout, coarse words used in every sentence by everyone all the time, including the children and women.

Equally pragmatic is Billy's dancing ability. This is a boy with a natural willingness to dance and interest in learning; he is not anywhere near a prodigy or even naturally talented. As Ms. Wilkinson advises, the Royal Ballet School auditions are in search of attitude; they can teach the rest. As such, the few dance scenes feature Jamie Bell throwing himself into dance moves more with determined resiliency than fluidity, adding to the prevailing sense of authenticity.

If the first half of the film is about the discovery of dance and confronting hardened expectations, the second half is more about fatherhood. Dad Jackie steps out of the background and into the parental role, tapping the depth of love, support and willingness to sacrifice lurking within seemingly rough and ready families just below the surface layer of grimy coal dust.

The miners' strike serves as a backdrop without intruding too far into the main story. The hardship of unemployed men is worsened as some surrender and return to work, fracturing the fraternity. In some respects Billy's discovery of dance and subsequent disobedience of his dad could not come at a worse time, but elsewhere other boys are also coming out of their shell, including best friend Michael.

As it turns out, in an environment where there is nothing left to lose, both the men and their sons discover new and commendable reservoirs of fortitude.

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