The underdog overcoming great adversity, David cutting Goliath down to size, the weakling showing courageous strength – great films are made when they celebrate such victories (Erin Brokovich, Muriel’s Wedding, The Full Monty), but many a weak film has failed when it hasn’t done justice to or has over-sentimentalized these wins.
Billy Elliot, a refreshing and gritty story of beating the odds, firmly belongs in the former category, despite a few shortcomings. Not unlike The Full Monty, Billy Elliot takes economic difficulty, combines it with a bit of social commentary, throws in some very likeable characters and comedy, and turns out a crowd-pleasing result.
The year is 1984, and growing up in the desolation of the miner’s strike in northeastern England under Thatcher, eleven-year-old Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) has a passion for dancing. When he slips into a ballet class one day while he’s supposed to be practicing boxing, the teacher Mrs Wilkinson (Julie Walters) notices his aptitude. Smartly enough, she very offhandedly encourages him to come back, and soon he’s coming regularly despite various taunts about his sex – even from the ballet class’s pianist.
Billy’s miner father Jackie (Gary Lewis), however, is horrified when he discovers his son has been learning how to dance. In a scene demonstrating a mixture of both the innocence and intelligence of youth, Billy demands that his father explain precisely why it is he can’t keep learning. "You know," is all that Billy’s inarticulate father can say. Billy’s mother is dead, the miner’s strike has them on the poverty line – for Billy’s father, this is the last thing he needs to deal with.
But Mrs Wilkinson pushes Billy on to audition for the Royal Ballet School. Can Billy exchange an impending bleak life in the mines for a life in the capital his father has never even been to? What comes next is quite predictable, but enjoyable nevertheless.
This is a coming of age story as much as anything else, one that recognizes children know far more than adults ever suspect. "They sleep in separate beds because they don’t have sex. My dad did it with a woman at work but they don’t think I know," says Mrs Wilkinson’s daughter Debbie to Billy, at the same time revealing more about Mrs Wilkinson’s disappointing life than she’s prepared to tell herself.
Billy’s relationship with the effeminate Michael (Stuart Wells) allows first time director Stephen Daldry to make the superfluous point that Billy is not gay; but in doing so he is also arguing that what one is passionate about is not related to sexuality.
The success of the film rests largely on the shoulders – or the feet – of newcomer Jamie Bell, whose ebullient dancing splashes vitality onto the screen and whose acting is also finely wrought. The only problem is that most of his scenes show him tap-dancing – and he’s supposedly been learning ballet. Julie Walters is great as the weary, chain-smoking ballet teacher, but sadly seems to disappear without explanation towards the end of the film. Gary Lewis has the presence of a steaming volcano, and it’s a pleasure to watch his transformation as he begins – predictably enough – to believe he really does have a talented son. He’s at his best during his and Billy’s pivotal trip to London, where his humility hurts to watch as he’s made to feel his place in English society perhaps like never before.
So this is also a film about British class; the miner’s strike is a constant throughout the film and infuses a hopelessness to the future if Billy doesn’t make it into ballet school. In one scene Debbie is walking home, dragging a stick along fences, and she doesn’t skip a beat as the fences change into police wearing full riot gear – she just runs the stick along their shields instead.
The icing on the cake is the film’s uplifting soundtrack, which represents some of the best of British class rebellion, including the Jam’s a "Town Called Malice" and the Clash’s "London Calling". Just try coming out of the cinema after watching Billy Elliot without smiling and tapping your fingers to one of the tunes stuck in your head.