INSIDE EVERY ONE OF US IS A SPECIAL TALENT WAITING TO COME OUT. THE TRICK IS FINDING IT.
There were two ”dancers” at the 2000 Cannes film festival – Lars Von Trier’s musical Dancer in the Dark and this film, which was originally inspired by a play called ”Dancer” that writer Lee Hall had conceived in the late 1990s. Both movies were praised by critics, but there was some confusion. After Dancer in the Dark won the Palme d’Or, a decision was made to change the title of Dancer to Billy Elliott. I remember liking the movie when I first saw it, but this fresh look made me feel even more impressed.
The year is 1984 and the place Everington, a fictional town in northern England. This is coal miner country and the workers have been on strike for quite some time. 11-year-old Billy (Jamie Bell) comes from a family of coal miners, but he’s different. His father (Gary Lewis) has sent him to boxing classes, but they’re not for him. Instead he discovers dancing, and ballet in particular. His father doesn’t know it, but Billy joins a ballet class led by Sandra Wilkinson (Julie Walters), who’s skeptical at first but soon realizes that the boy has real talent, if only he puts his mind to it and receives proper training.
They start working together in earnest, but there will come a time when Billy has to tell his father as well as his macho older brother Tony (Jamie Draven) that this is what he wants to do…
Following a successful template
A story about ballet in the middle of the bitter coal miners’ strike of 1984-1985, that’s not really something we’ve seen before. Still, Billy Elliott follows a template that’s been successful in several other movies in the late 1990s, not least The Full Monty (1997) and Brassed Off (1996). There’s something special about the combination between a politically historical setting that still resonates with audiences, such as the battle between Thatcher and the miners, a musical theme, lots of laughs and an attitude that confronts stale macho values among working class men. Billy is a boy who likes to dance and we often get the feeling that so does the camera.
This is director Stephen Daldry’s first film, but he already had a successful career in theater behind him. Billy Elliott clearly shows what a gifted eye for visuals Daldry has; together with cinematographer Brian Tufano, he comes up with many ideas that makes the movie a lively, irresistible experience. Earnest sentiments are frequently just below the surface, behind all the humor, because this is also a story about grief (Billy’s father is trying to cope after the death of his wife) and anger (the miners are in a desperate situation). The way Billy’s father and brother handle the news of Billy wanting to learn a craft that’s only for an upper-class homosexual in their minds is believable, and so is their journey from rage to acceptance and support. There are moments here that touch our hearts, including a time jump to 1999.
The cast is absolutely wonderful, including Walters and Lewis as the dance teacher and Billy’s father who are at loggerheads over the boy’s future. Young Bell got his breakthrough as the stubborn kid with a temper who learns how to channel his emotions into furious dancing; he’s simply marvelous.
The director kept coming back to Billy Elliott over the years, the most audience-pleasing endeavor of his career. When the story was turned into a musical, he directed the West End production as well as the one in New York in 2008, winning a Tony the following year. Considering how much darker his films were after this one, no wonder he needed a little light, optimism and humor now and then.
Billy Elliott 2000-Britain. 110 min. Color. Produced by Greg Brenman, Jonathan Finn. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Screenplay: Lee Hall. Cinematography: Brian Tufano. Cast: Julie Walters (Sandra Wilkinson), Jamie Bell (Billy Elliott), Jamie Draven (Tony Elliott), Gary Lewis, Jean Heywood, Stuart Wells.
BAFTA: Best British Film, Actor (Bell), Supporting Actress (Walters).
Last word: “I think it was one of the most important moments of post-war domestic British politics. It’s surprised me how there haven’t been more films about it. Especially since the time of the strike was one of the most phenomenal periods of creativity ever seen in this country. Poetry, music, theatre.” (Daldry, The Guardian)