Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Billy Elliot – Coming of Age in England is No Easier Than in the States

Written by Lee Hall
Directed by Stephen Daldry

I finally managed to view this excellent film this past week after having intended to view it several times now. It’s a terrific story of a young man’s journey to find his place in this world.

Billy Elliot (portrayed by Jamie Bell) is a young boy in Everington, a mining town where his father is a miner out on strike in the brutal mining strikes which took place in 1984. Billy helps take care of his family including his somewhat senile grandmother, father, and brother, Tony, who is also out on strike. Billy’s mother died a few years before. Most of his time outside of school is spent practicing boxing at the local boys club. When a girl’s ballet class begins using some of the space at the club for their practices, Billy feels dance calling him.

The teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson (portrayed by Julie Walters) lets him join the class for the day, and then invites him back the next week. Billy is torn by what he wants to do and what he knows is expected of him by his friends and family. There wouldn’t be a movie if he didn’t decide to follow his heart, although he has misgivings about deceiving his family and being called a “sissy.”

When his father, Jackie, (portrayed by Gary Lewis) finds out there is an angry confrontation. His father orders him to stop going to ballet. He goes to see his teacher, and she offers to coach him on his own so he can try out for the Royal Ballet School.

I say it’s a coming of age flick, because it involves much more than just Billy’s quest to be a dancer and attend the Royal Ballet school. There are the family dynamics of the resolution over his mother’s death as well as coping with the financial effects of the strike. Billy is also at a time in his life where he is moving from idolizing his father and older brother to questioning the authority they have and everything he has been taught until this moment. Dancing helps him cope with all of the frustrations brought about by the interplay of the various dynamics around him.

This is also the point where Billy is learning that even the seeming perfect and intact homelife of two parents that his friends have is not all it’s cracked up to be. His best friend, Michael (portrayed by Stuart Wells) is cross-dressing already. When Billy questions him on his parent’s reaction if he is caught, Michael informs him that his father does it all the time. Billy’s dance teacher is married to an alcoholic, and her daughter, Debbie, (portrayed by Nicola Blackwell) has no qualms about dumping the family problems on her mother’s new prodigy.

His sexual awakening comes in his interaction with Debbie. Billy’s interest in her well beyond the child-like friendship that exists to this point in life. It also serves to squelch the notion that dancers are automatically “poofs” (their word, not mine).

When Billy finally has the nerve to show his father what he can do, it forces the father to realize that Billy has the talent and the ability to get away from just becoming another miner stuck in a mining town, subject to the whims of the company or government, with little or nothing to look forward to. At one point, Jackie’s convictions get tested as he chooses to be a scab to get the money to send Billy to London. Nothing else could make him turn against the union – not having to burn his dead wife’s piano to keep warm, not having to worry about where their next meal came from, not the violence his older son becomes involved in. The love for his younger son and wanting a better life for him causes him to compromise his principles. In the end, however, he doesn’t end up going through with it. Instead, he takes his wife’s jewelry to the pawnshop. For him, the trip to London is his first one, further demonstrating the fact that he was never given the opportunity to really see anything beyond his small-town mining life.

The social setting was very interesting. I was eighteen in 1984, but I don’t remember the strikes that went on. My impression is that the coal miner’s strike is the British version of our own PATCO (airport controller’s) strike. It was a moment that marked a deep turning point in the power of unions and the government’s policies in dealing with them in the U.K.

The director, Stephen Daldry, uses this setting magnificently, juxtaposing images such as Billy taking a lesson versus his father at a picket line when scabs come through and a riot breaks out. He does this a few times throughout the film, creating a very moving sequence. The cinematography is also excellent, and something I notices, particularly in regards to the scenes in the boys club. The light shines through only a few small windows, creating a twilight-like effect as he is being put through the motions by Mrs. Wilkinson.

The soundtrack to the film is excellent as well. Far from being just classical pieces, it draws in songs by T. Rex, The Clash, and The Jam giving a feel to the time and place as well as the appropriate feelings for the particular scenes. It would be worth picking up as well.

Billy Elliot is rated R for the coarse language. I did have trouble understanding the British dialect at times, and rewatched several scenes to make sure I’d know what was happening. The DVD does contain subtitles, and when I have the opportunity to watch it again, I’ll try it that way.

There is also an excellent documentary on the making of the film on the DVD, titled Billy Elliot: Breaking Free. I enjoyed watching it as it did give me a greater comprehension of the entire scope of the film. According to this documentary, the miner’s strike changed the entire meaning of “community” in England. This is somewhat demonstrated in the support Jackie and Billy receive from the community when he is trying to figure out how to get his son to the audition in London, versus the reactions when the result of that audition is known at the same time the union is broken.

The acting in the film is superb. Most of the players are virtual unknowns to U.S. audiences, but that is probably a good thing. Jamie Bell is excellent as Billy, and I am anxious to see him in more parts in the future. He seems a bit old for an 11-year-old, but he does convey the conflicted feelings inside Billy quite well. In any scene with the adult actors, he holds his own just fine. When he is with actors more his own age, his presence seems to take over and more than makes up for their weaknesses.

As his father, Jackie, Gary Lewis shows a wide range of emotions. At first he is the hard-working, blue-collar, man who can’t understand where he went wrong that his son would choose to dance over being a boxer. His way of thinking just won’t allow him to comprehend that Billy can be a “man” and dance at the same time. As the film wears on, he evolves into a different person and his relationship with his son evolves as well. Lewis also has some terrific scenes involving Jamie Draven who portrays Tony, his older son. Tony is sure there are better ways to force the government and the mining company to cave into the union’s demands, while Jackie is frightened of what will happen if Tony follows that path. They clash on this on more than one occasion, and Lewis does a terrific job realistically depicting the evolution of his character over this time period.

Also of note is Julie Walters’ performance as Mrs. Wilkinson. At times she takes on an almost mother-like place in Billy’s life, and has a hard time stepping away from it all when his father wants to keep the situation within the family. She walks a hard line dealing with her own life and it’s joys and let-downs, as well as giving Billy the “tough love” he needs and dealing with the abuse he heaps on her along with his family. Walters has Mrs. Wilkinson as a tough woman with an icy exterior behind which is a heart of gold. Her performance is impeccable.

I highly recommend this film as I enjoyed it quite a bit and would have no problems watching it a second or even third time. It’s a complex but very entertaining bit of filmmaking that gave me the insight that growing up in the U.K. can be just as difficult as it is here.