Ferdy on Films, etc.

Film reviews and commentary, random thoughts on the world around us, blatant promotion of favorite charities, and other ponderables.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Billy Elliott (2000)
Director
: Stephen Daldry


Children have been important to adult films since their earliest days. Slapstick silent comedies often had some destructive brat in a bonnet driving some overwhelmed adult around the bend. In other films, such as Chaplin's The Kid, the child (Jackie Coogan) was on equal footing and an integral part of a sentimental story of familial love. Even in these films, however, the child was a bit idealized, a condition that would persist through the syrupy Shirley Temple movies that sold innocence to a jaded world and the safe S-E-X Andy Hardy films that would make Mickey Rooney seem eternally adolescent for the rest of his career.

It would take post-WWII social breakdown to gradually make children in adult movies into the too-clever-by-half youngsters, snarky teens, and violent thugs we fear and loathe today. To find anything approaching an "average" child, you have to see films whose primary target audience is children/teens or the increasingly rare family film. Billy Elliott has the most appealing, real kids I have seen on the screen in a very long time, which I suspect accounts for the legions of adults who have been completely charmed by it. Jamie Bell, who plays the title role, is absolutely extraordinary, the kind of kid any parent would like to claim as his or her own. Yet, this really isn't a stellar family film in the strictest sense because the adults in it are one-dimensional and motivated by plot rather than character. This film speaks best to kids.

Billy is the 11-year-old son of a widowed coal miner (Gary Lewis) in Northern England. He shares a room with his older brother Tony (Jamie Draven) and tends to his somewhat feeble-minded, live-in grandmother (Jean Heywood) whose mantra is that she could have been a professional dancer. Perhaps it's her influence that causes Billy to join the ballet class taught by Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters) he has been eyeing from across the gymnasium where he is supposed to be learning to box. The teacher sees something in Billy and singles him out for special attention. Slowly, Billy gets the hang of it, feeling triumphant when he finally manages to nail a pirouette.

Billy has been lying to his father about what he has been doing when he's supposed to be boxing. His father hits the roof, but not because dancing is for "poofs." He's angry that Billy has been wasting money, for the miners are on strike and every penny counts. He forces Billy to give up the class, but Mrs. Wilkinson agrees to continue his training for free and prepares him for a regional audition for the Royal Ballet School.

The day of the audition, Tony is arrested for taking part in a violent demonstration against the mining company and scabs who have been crossing the picket line. Billy must miss the audition to go with his father to bail Tony out of jail. That is when Billy's teacher and father go head-to-head over the boy's future.

A major turning point occurs when Billy and his best friend Michael, who Billy has caught cross-dressing, go into the gymnasium so that Billy can show Michael what dancing is about. Because he knows Michael likes dresses, he fetches one of the girls' tutus and then puts Michael through some barre positions. Naturally, Billy's father walks in on them. Defiantly, Billy does the dance he had prepared for the audition, ending with him staring down his father. Mr. Elliott storms out of the gym but heads straight for Mrs. Wilkinson's house and finds out how he can help Billy get into the Royal Ballet School. We know then that we are headed for a happy ending, though the film manages to make the journey from the coal pit to the orchestra pit an interesting one.

The interactions between Billy and Michael are first-rate. Billy slowly comes to realize that Michael is a "poof" who fancies him, but he isn't bothered by it once the surprise fades. Both boys are frank in their affection for each other, however different in character, and convey a naturalness in everything, from Michael putting lipstick on Billy to Billy giving Michael a kiss on the cheek as he sets off for London. Debbie (Nicola Blackwell), Mrs. Wilkinson's daughter, fancies Billy and urges him into the class in an offhand manner that, nonetheless, shows a shrewdness about how to get him to drop his inhibitions. She is effectively seductive when she and Billy have a pillow fight in her room, tempting Billy to kiss her even though he doesn't fancy her. It's a terrific scene of budding sexuality that is played absolutely right. Another scene in which Billy imagines his dead mother is still alive is deeply moving.

The adults fare much less well. Mrs. Wilkinson doesn't even get a first name, and she's saddled with the cliched life of a frustrated housewife pouring her emotion into Billy's dancing. Mr. Elliott's support for Billy's dancing ambitions, while possibly true for his character, came out of left field because his part was so underwritten. When he runs through the hilly, cobblestoned streets to the union hall to shout that Billy has been accepted to the school, it just looks like an obligatory scene rather than a real moment. However, the film succeeds in contrasting the bleak future Billy would have in the mines with the promise of a fulfilling life in the arts and the big city. I thought it was a nice touch that when Billy asks his father what London is like as they ride the train to the audition, Mr. Elliott declares that he's never been there, or anywhere else.

Stephen Daldry's capital in Hollywood rose in a backhanded way when he was credited with directing Nicole Kidman's prosthetic nose to an Oscar in The Hours. A closer look at that flawed film would show that he brought the best out in all the members of that stellar cast, and he does the same with Billy Elliott. I lay the blame for this not-quite-right film at the feet of its writer, Lee Hall, who appears to have done mainly children's films before this one. This would explain his affinity for his young characters and clumsiness with his adults. I wonder if he also was responsible for Billy becoming a righteous tap dancer when he was, after all, learning ballet, but perhaps that was the producer playing to Jamie Bell's strength. As a former dancer, I was bothered by this inconsistency, but as a viewer, I loved every step in Mr. Bell's gifted feet. He is the heart of the movie and gives it everything he's got. You might just fall in love with him--and with Billy Elliott. l

1 Comments:

  • At 11:39 AM, Anonymous movie news said…

    I just watched this movie with a feeling that its a bad one but I was wrong as when the movie started I was smiling after few minutes. I found this one as inspirational movie.

     

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