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Billy Elliot

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  • Noel Vera
    Boy Wonder By Noel Vera Billy Elliot Stephen Daldry s Billy Elliot takes that age-old story, The Working Class Hero on the Rise, and gives it a fresh
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 16, 2001
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      Boy Wonder

      By Noel Vera

      Billy Elliot

      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
      other.

      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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