When I mentioned to a friend that I was doing this Blind Spot Series, of all the classic movies he could have suggested he said something along the lines of “I bet you still haven’t seen Billy Elliot”, he was right. So why hadn’t I seen it? The aforementioned friend had seen the movie with his wife and recommended I see it. I wasn’t interested. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I am as small minded as the characters in the film, but in 2000 when it came out I had no interest in a movie about Ballet. So what’s changed? I still have no interest in Ballet, I have never been to a ballet (although I do own a couple of records of ballet music). I have now seen The Red Shoes (1948) and Black Swan (2010) that paint a darker and more interesting picture on the subject. In other words I am a little more open minded.
Northeast England, Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) is the eleven year old son of a coal miner during the 1984 strike. When the strike forces the local ballet class to share a hall with his boxing club Billy soon discovers he is more interested in dancing than fighting. Torn between his love of dancing a the gritty realism of daily life Billy is given direction by his ballet teacher (Julie Walters ) who sees something in him and encourages him to pursue greater things.
The film is perfectly setup in the first scene, it possibly tells us all we need to know and all we will know at the end of the film:
Boucing on bed playing “I Love to Boogie” by T-Rex – Billy likes dancing
Billy caring for grandmother – One of his parents is missing
Riot Police on the hill in the background – Social unrest
Shares bedroom with much older brother –Social deprivation
Further into the movie Billy reads a letter from his late mother telling him to “Always be yourself”. this is the real story of the film. First Billy has to find himself before he can be himself, however he is family and the community what to keep him and everyone else in their place, in their box. This box is beautifully realised by Billy literally breaking out of the outdoor toilet. He is the angry young man we have seen countless times before, but he is an angry young man with an outlet. When Billy is given a pair of ballet shoes, he hides them under his mattress, the place in movies where adolescent boys hide porn! This perfectly demonstrates the conflict and embarrassment he feels about his dancing. He knows there is nothing wrong with it but he can’t share it with his family who won’t understand. The era is perfectly realised in the events and the look of the film. The background of the miners strike is gives it an extra dimension but doesn’t dwell on it. The coming out of a classmate plays well against the Billy’s constant explanation that dancers aren’t “puff’s”. A lot of the music is from the 70’s not the 80’s but fits perfectly. The glam of T-Rex against the anger of The Jam and The Clash not only sets the tone for the movie but also highlights the contrasts.
What sets the film apart and makes it work is the heart, the humour and the realism. These are characters we believe in and more importantly and that care for. This is because of the faultless direction, but more importantly the actors playing them. At the heart of the movie is Jamie Bell in the title role, he deservedly won the Best Actor BAFTA beating Russell Crowe, Tom Hanks, Michael Douglas and Geoffrey Rush (all Oscar winners). Looking back now knowing what a great actor he has become this is no surprise, but we have to remember this was his debut film. Julie Walters (Oscar nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role) is fantastic as the ballet teacher, a mixture of Mr. Miyagi, Dr. Frank Bryant, John Keating and Mickey Goldmill in equal parts. The first and still possibly the most significant movie from director Stephen Daldry, but again looking back this is no great surprise. The notable thing about all his subsequent movies has been the acting.
The emotion of the film never feels forced or contrived, neither does the comedy. But we have seen these things many times before. the remakable simplicity and perfection of the story is the arc of the characters. Not Billy, but the supporting characters he drags along for the ride. for the change in attitudes to not be out of place in the context of the story and the setting is a great triumph from Daldry and for screenwriter Lee Hall.
A very British film. Looking back it tells the story of a significant time in British history that wasn’t that long ago, but equally it was stepping stone in the rejuvenation of the British film industry. The film always falls more on the side of uplifting than grim social realism, this certainly helped the box-office, but surprisingly doesn’t devalue the film, it just makes it more accessible. I’m sorry I waited so long.