By Noel Vera
Stephen Daldry's "Billy Elliot" takes that age-old story, The Working Class
Hero on the Rise, and gives it a fresh twist--this time our hero wants to
take up ballet, something no self-respecting member of the working class
would ever want to have anything to do with. Education, fine; writing,
painting, even acting in theater or film fine, but ballet--you might as well
slap powder on your face, rouge your lips, and sashay down the street to the
sound of catcalls for all the respect you're going to get. A male ballet
dancer, Daldry makes abundantly clear, is the working-class male's
definition of a flaming pervert.
It's to Daldry's (and writer Lee Hall's) credit that they keep the source of
Billy's urge to dance a mystery--he drops out of the boxing ring one day,
after having his senses knocked out of him, just when a ballet class taught
by Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters) begins practice nearby. Drawn to the
music, to the sight of young girls' limbs swinging to and fro, he responds.
It's that simple. Oh there are suggestions of heredity--the grandmother
"could have been a professional dancer," as she's fond of saying--but Daldry
leaves this hanging. Billy's urge to dance is ultimately as inexplicable
as, say, Buster Keaton's stoicism or Harpo Marx's silence--if you actually
stopped to explain it, it wouldn't be funny.
Instead, Daldry and Hall concentrate on the details of Elliot's
obsession--on Elliot's reluctant first dance steps, on his furtive
rehearsals in the bathroom (with the water running as if he were taking a
bath). Eventually Mrs. Wilkinson makes the unheard-of suggestion that Billy
audition in the Royal Ballet School in London, while Billy's father (Gary
Lewis) finds out about his secret lessons; things come, as they always do in
these films, to a head.
The film has the standard array of cliches, but Daldry and Hall manage to
sidestep most with a deftness that matches Billy's developing skill. Mrs.
Wilkinson is the classic mentor who drives her student hard, though with
Julie Walters in the part (she played Rita in "Educating Rita," yet another
example of the Working Class Heroine) there is more warmth and humor to the
role than usual. Billy at one point throws her a curve ball: "you don't
happen to fancy me, do you?" he asks, point-blank. She blinks, then gives a
big smile: "No I don't, strangely enough. Piss off." "Piss off yourself,"
Billy replies and walks away, this casual exchange of obscenities
underlining just how comfortable teacher and student have become with each
Likewise with Jackie Elliot the father, who, as played by Gary Lewis (he was
Joe in "A Guy Named Joe," a film I disliked--but not for Lewis' heartfelt
performance) is blunt and forceful and not a little terrifying when angry.
Billy is afraid of his father, but when he really screws things up--when, at
one point, his father catches him in the gym dancing with another young boy
wearing a tutu--Billy's ultimate reaction is startling, even a little
breathtaking. It takes courage to defy one's father, especially at
something so obviously taboo as ballet, and since it's assumed by all the
men in this film that courage is the domain of a real man, not a 'poofter,'
then Billy is no 'poofter' (the idea that homosexuality and courage or the
lack of do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, Daldry wisely leaves for another
film to deal with).
As Billy Jamie Bell is astonishing, one of the best performances by a child
actor I've seen in a long time (or at least, since Zhang Yimou's "Not One
Less"). It's not just the dancing, which manages to suggest both neophyte
awkwardness and growing grace, eventually shading towards the latter as the
film progresses--it's Bell's natural poise, his sense of humor, plus the
feeling you get looking at him that he has all kinds of emotions bottled up
inside, demanding to be let out.
The film has major flaws--the school and family life is handled well, with
some comedy to keep the tone piquant, but the strike scenes are heavy
handed, melodramatic. And when Billy's father and brother Tony (Jamy
Draven) are finally converted to Billy's cause, the air goes out of them as
characters--they become rah-rah boys for the burgeoning hero.
Then there's the issue of homosexuality--the film is a touch too strident in
insisting that Billy is straight, despite his tendencies toward ballet. He
even has a gay friend Michael (Stuart Wells) who seems to have been included
just so that Billy can reject his advances and still remain friends--thus
showing how sophisticated Billy can be about gender relations. I found
Billy's defensiveness to the point of violence in Ballet School more
credible--after being accused by your father, brother, and neighbors of
being gay, of course you're going to be defensive. Billy needs a blind spot
to make him a more fully rounded character, and this would have been as good
a point as any to give him one.
Flaws aside, it's an intensely appealing film, one of the better musicals
(aside from "South Park") I've seen in recent years, and in Jamie Bell, an
impressively assured film debut. So impressive, in fact, that I disliked
the film's end where (skip this if you haven't seen the film) we see Billy
grown up, all muscular and bulked-up, nothing 'poofty' about him, glowing in
the adulation of friends and family. It's too much like a Hollywood
feel-good ending, a shameless pandering to the desires of the audience. I
much prefer Bell's Billy--slight yet somehow courageous, timid yet able when
needed to flash defiance, a spirited rebel full of jokes and surprises who
easily prances off with the picture.
(Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...
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