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Billy Elliot Print E-mail
Tuesday, 17 April 2001

Billy Elliot

Universal Home Video
starring: Julie Walters, Jamie Bell, Gary Lewis, Jamie Draven, Jean Heywood, Stuart Wells, Nicola Blackwell
release year: 2000
film rating: Four-and-a-half stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

The world-wide success of 'Billy Elliot' doubtlessly surprised everyone involved. This modest British movie has a familiar plot -- young man (rarely woman) earnestly wants to succeed in an area frowned upon by his father. He overcomes obstacles on the way to achieve his goal, but finally triumphs, and is reconciled with the old man. This dates back at least to 'The Jazz Singer,' the first feature movie with sound, and gets brushed off and revamped every few years. But when it's done well, as it is here, it's almost irresistable.

Anyway, who'd want to resist 'Billy Elliot'? It's funny and moving, insightful but not pretentious, with an unusual setting and circumstances. The characters are reasonably well drawn, with particularly good acting -- Julie Walters was nominated for an Oscar for her role as a tough, sincere ballet instructor living in a small northern England city.

But the focus, of course, is on Billy Elliot himself (newcomer Jamie Bell), the 11-year-old son of a recently widowed coal mine worker, Jackie Elliot (Gary Lewis). They live in a small tenement with Tony (Jamie Draven), Billy's older brother, and their nearly senile grandmother (Jean Heywood). It's 1984, and the region is in the grips of one of the most disastrous strikes in British history; Margaret Thatcher, no friend to the worker, was the Prime Minister, and has declared the striking miners "the enemy within." Much of this is new to American audiences, but director Stephen Daldry (a theatrical director making his feature debut) and writer Lee Hall skillfully sketch in the effects of the strike in and around Billy's story.

Billy is basically just an ordinary kid, though the sprightly opening titles -- he's bouncing on a bed -- show that he's already linking his own movement to music. Along with other kids his age, he's taking boxing lessons at a local gymnasium, when strike circumstances require a ballet class taught by Mrs. Wilkinson (Walters) to share the area with the boxing class.

Billy, who's lousy at boxing, is instantly transfixed, not by the girls in tutus -- one of whom is Debbie (Nicola Blackwell), Mrs. Wilkinson's daughter -- but by the dance training itself. After the other boxing kids leave, the almost mesmerized Billy is drawn into practicing with the girls.

And he's found his heart and soul in dance. He comes back week after week, practicing with the girls, to at first the bemusement and then the genuine interest of Mrs. Wilkinson. Billy wisely keeps all this from his Dad and Tony. He's just a bother to Tony; as they're falling asleep in their shared bedroom one night, Billy whispers, "Tony, do you ever think about death?" "Fuck off," Tony replies. But eventually Jackie learns that Billy is practicing ballet.

They have a confrontation in the kitchen, the central room of their flat. "Lads do football or boxin' or wrestlin,'" Dad insists, "not friggin' ballet." But Billy simply will not be dissuaded, and continues with his practice. Mrs. Wilkinson realizes he's genuinely talented, and suggests that he audition for the Royal Ballet School. He's about to go to the audition when the strike becomes violent, and Tony is beaten before his eyes.

Months pass. Still on strike, at Christmas, Dad is forced to smash his late wife's piano for firewood. Billy is still resentful over his missed opportunity, and goes to the closed boxing hall with his best friend Michael (Stuart Wells), who is pretty clearly gay, and in love with Billy. (Bravely, the filmmakers felt no need to establish Billy's sexual orientation one way or the other.)

Someone reports to Jackie, who's half drunk, what's going on, and he roars off to the gym to confront his son. But Billy confronts his dad in the movie's key scene, the big turning point and really its emotional high point.

But the film is strongly emotional throughout, without ever being sentimental or overt about it. It's a remarkably understated movie, which makes these scenes even more touching. It's incredibly potent at times, thanks to the fine performances, particularly that of Jamie Bell, and to Daldry's sensitive, intelligent direction.

It's hard to believe this is his first theatrical feature after a career on stage; there's not even the faintest whiff of staginess -- the camera work (Brian Tufano was DP) is understated and eloquent, never prettifying the rugged, no-nonsense setting. It's not flamboyant, but it is imaginative at times.

Jamie Bell is amazing as Billy; as with Daldry, it's hard to believe this was his first feature film. He's fierce, funny, naive, smart, involved and at all times completely believable, whether in dialog scenes or the frequent bursts of dancing, the highlights of the movie. One of the most impressive aspects is that every one of Billy's dances feels fresh and improvised, yet trained and conscious -- and each is vividly different from the others.

The Chapters for this disc are not well placed; it would be great to be able to pick out each of Billy's dances individually, but they're buried, sometimes deeply, within the chapters. In Chapter 4, there's Billy's rawest dance; he hasn't had much training yet, but he simply cannot repress his joy any longer. For about a minute, he leaps and sprints through the city streets in an absolutely explosion of delight.

In Chapter 14, Bell and Walters dance together to "I Love to Boogie" by T. Rex, another highlight of the film, as the two run through an eclectic mix of styles, from ballet to tap. The dance Billy does for his father in Chapter 12 is outstanding, and we believe that it could have the result it did. However, the outstanding dance number is in Chapter 10, as Billy expresses his energy and his fury to The Jam's "A Town Called Malice." It's one of the finest dance sequences in many years, dazzling, involving, supple, graceful and still fully expressing Billy's turmoil.

There are only a few awkward moments; a scene in which Billy imagines that his Mam is still alive seems pointless. When the all-important letter arrives from the Ballet School, the excitement of Dad and Tony seems phony and contrived, and the entire scene rings a little false. But overall, it's not hard to understand why Daldry got an Oscar nomination for his first movie.

The DVD presents the film very well, in an excellent print with outstanding sound. The extras are minor; there's a standard making-of documentary produced as publicity for the film, and material from the presskit is available in DVD-Rom mode. It's surprising that for a film so well-liked and financially successful, Univeral Focus couldn't have produced a commentary track.

more details
sound format:
Dolby 5.1 surround, Dolby digital mono
aspect ratio(s):
letterboxed (16X9 enhanced)
special features: documentary, commentary track, stills, etc. Some CD-ROM features.
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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