Billy Elliot

                 Each year, a handful of small films seemingly come out of nowhere and enchant
         critics and audiences with their amazing, heartfelt stories, strong acting and solid
         production values. A leading candidate for inclusion on this list for 2000 is
Billy Elliot,
         a British comedy-drama about a miner's son in the industrial north of England in 1984
         who decides to pursue a career in the ballet. Okay, it hardly sounds like the stuff of
         great drama (or comedy, even) -- and admittedly the movie occasionally slips into cliché
         -- but as imaginatively written by Lee Hall and sensitively directed by Stephen Daldry (in
         his feature film debut),
Billy Elliot manages to exceed expectations. This is a heartfelt,
         charming and ultimately moving story of one youngster's voyage of self-discovery.

                 From the terrific opening credits during which Billy (newcomer Jamie Bell) bounces
         on his bed while surreptitiously listening to his older brother's records to its final
coup
         de cinema
, Billy Elliot is awash in movement. Early in the film, there's a wonderful
         sequence of Billy preparing breakfast for his ailing grandmother (Jean Heywood) that
         perfectly captures the boy's pent-up frustrations and displays his grace and agility. As
         he dashes about the kitchen in a choreographed manner, he prepares a tray with eggs
         and toast. From the outset, Hall and Daldry make it clear that Billy is meant to dance.

                 Unfortunately for him, he is a miner's son and in the small village in which he lives,
         he is probably fated to following his father (a terrific Gary Lewis) and brother (Jamie
         Draven) into the mine shafts. As the film opens in 1984, Billy's mother has recently
         died and the stress of raising two sons and coping with a miner's strike are taking
         their toll on Mr. Elliot. At his insistence, Billy is enrolled in the local boxing club where
         the youngster halfheartedly participates. When the boxers are forced to share space
         one day with a girls' ballet class, Billy is inexplicably drawn to them. Caught watching
         by the class' chain-smoking, blasé taskmaster Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), Billy is
         told to join in. In his boxing gear amidst all the tutus, he sticks out yet he also displays
         gifts that Mrs. Wilkinson had not anticipated. Sensing she has found a natural, the
         dance teacher encourages Billy to continue and he soon trades in the boxing gloves
         for toe shoes, surreptitiously practicing the moves in the bathroom or his bedroom so
         as not to alert his father and brother.

                 Mrs. Wilkinson is so impressed with Billy's innate abilities that she encourages him
         to audition for the Royal Ballet School in London but a conflict between the striking
         miners and the police leads to his brother's arrest causing Billy to miss the audition and
         for his secret to be revealed. Predictably, his father is appalled, equating an interest in
         such artsy things as signs that his son might be a homosexual and forbids Billy from
         dancing. Of course, this only inflames the boy's passions more. When the pair have
         their penultimate conflict over the issue, Daldry stages a terrific wordless sequence
         in which the youngster let loose with a wild dance that taps into all the repressed
         passion Billy feels. It is one of the high points in this entertaining and well-acted film.

                 Daldry and his cinematographer Brian Tufano capture the claustrophobic aspects
         of the streets and houses perfectly. The action unfolds against the backdrop of a key
         strike in 1984, and the sight of riot police and the scenes of the picket lines being crossed
         are staged with authenticity. Similarly, the more intimate scenes of the family are nicely
         captured as well. Daldry also shows a great eye for casting. Gary Lewis has been
         offering terrific supporting performances in films like
My Name Is Joe and Orphans,
         but with
Billy Elliot, audiences should finally be able to put a name to the face. He
         takes what easily could have been a hackneyed character and invests it with deeply
         wrought feelings. Mr. Elliot is a conflicted man, adrift because of his wife's death and
         struggling with raising his sons. He is more pragmatic than sentimental (there is a
         devastating scene when he must use his late wife's beloved piano for firewood) but
         he is also not a martinet. Once he recognizes just how much dance means to Billy,
         he is willing to make any sacrifice for his son.

               Julie Walters sometimes has a tendency to over-emote or comment on her
         characters to the detriment of her work, but here Daldry has reined her in and she
         offers perhaps her best screen work in years. As the tough ballet teacher, she easily
         could have relied on shtick and mannerisms, but instead she allows the audience
         to see a woman whose own dreams were thwarted and who sees in Billy a true gift
         that even she is lacking. She can take him only so far, but she is willing to do just that
         and she forms a nice bond with Jamie Bell as Billy. Bell, an unknown who won the
         part over thousands of others, is just about perfect as the title character. Blessed
         with innate charisma and a naturalness that the camera captures, he makes an
         auspicious film debut. Bell was also a trained dancer, so he was able to project the
         appropriate mix of awkwardness with the hint of greatness to come. In the dramatic
         scenes, the youngster also excelled. As his best friend, the closet cross-dresser
         Michael, who clearly has formed a deeper attachment to Billy than is reciprocated,
         newcomer Stuart Wells also makes a strong impression.

                 Following in the wake of such other British films as
The Fully Monty and
        Brassed Off, both of which also used the themes of entertainment as a means
         of escaping oppressive social and economic conditions,
Billy Elliot hits the right
         notes. It also bears a passing resemblance to the similarly-themed
Girlfight and
         
Bootmen, but while those films collapse under the weight of their overly-familiar
         storylines,
Billy Elliot kicks up its heels and turns what might have been a trite
         tale into a soaring, enjoyable film.


                                                         Rating:                         A-
                                                         MPAA Rating:             R
                                                         Running time:             111 mins.
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.