Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) is an 11-year-old boy living in northeast England in the mid-1980s. While his gruff father and brother are taking part in a massive coal miners strike, Billy goes to boxing lessons and furtively plays his dead mother’s piano out of loneliness. One day Billy notices a ballet class nearby. Intrigued, he begins practicing and taking lessons from Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), a tough-minded teacher. Billy begins to fall in love with ballet but keeps his lessons a secret from his family, who struggle to put food on the table while the strike drags on.
When his father finally learns the truth, a family crisis erupts, and Billy struggles to prove that dancing is more than just a hobby–it’s his dream. Billy Elliot is a touching and heartwarming story that avoids clichï¿½s by setting the story in the grim mining town of northern England amid economic hardship and sacrifice, showing the joy and release that dancing provides for Billy.
A Guilty Pleasure
I skipped Billy Elliot on the big screen because I was a little afraid. I’d heard it compared to The Full Monty, a film that was mildly amusing, but–at least for me–not much more. But one of the good things about home video is that it gives you a second chance to see movies you might not have been willing to risk going out to a theater to see. I’m glad I finally did get to see Billy Elliot because something quite unexpected happened–I loved it, although I’ll admit it was a guilty pleasure.
While Billy Elliot doesn’t seem much like The Full Monty to me, it does have affinities with movies like Rocky and Girlfight, films that follow a familiar story arc where a working-class athlete overcomes seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the pursuit of a sport that fuels his/her passion. This is well-trodden terrain, but given the right actor–Sylvester Stallone in Rocky and Michelle Rodriguez in Girlfight–you get a hero you not only care about but can root for. Once again the formula works in Billy Elliot, where the title character is an 11-year-old working-class boy who doggedly pursues his dream of becoming a professional dancer. And once again, it’s the charismatic actor who plays the title role–the energetic, jug-eared young Jamie Bell–who brings to life an unforgettable character.
A Coal Mining Town with an Ocean View
Billy Elliot is set in 1984-85 in the coal mining town of Everington in northeast England. Billy lives in a part of town made up of rather picturesque brick houses with nearby green fields, and the ocean can often be seen in the background as the characters walk through the streets. The filmmakers have taken pains to paint a picture of a life that’s not entirely bleak–nearly every scene is awash in color.
But throughout almost the whole movie, a prolonged, violent strike is the dominant fact of life in Everington. And the strike profoundly affects Billy since both his father and his older brother are among the miners on strike. To make things even worse, there seems to be little sympathy for the strikers, and at one point, Billy hears a radio announcer saying, “In a speech to Tory M.P.’s yesterday, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher referred to members of the striking National Union of Mine Workers as the ‘the enemy within.'”
Billy Discovers Dance
The movie opens with Billy playing a recording of “Cosmic Dancer” by T-Rex, and this sets the lively style for the soundtrack music, most of which is rock. The irrepressible Billy is shown throwing together a breakfast for his grandmother, but when he goes to give it to her, she’s not in her bed. He soon finds her wandering in a field, but she seemingly fails to recognize him and appears to be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. As he leads her back to the house, a large group of policemen are shown preparing for their daily assignment of controlling the violence of the striking miners.
Later, we see Billy taking a boxing lesson at the Everington Boys Club. His footwork is terrific, but he seems unwilling to hit his opponent. So that a soup kitchen can be set up for the striking miners, a dance class has been relocated, and it now shares space with the boxing class. Just as soon as the piano music from the dance class wafts over to the boxing ring, Billy is mesmerized. Before long, he joins the dance lesson, even though he’s wearing boxing shoes. The class is taught by Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), who chain smokes as she barks out instructions to her students.
Coming home from the class, a memory of Fred Astaire dancing in Top Hat flashes though Billy’s imagination. Later, when Billy and his grandmother are walking through the field near their house, she tells him “Your mum’s favorite was Fred Astaire. We used to watch him at the Palace picture house and then dance through the front room like lunatics.” They continue walking and go to visit his mom’s grave. According to her tombstone, she died less than a year earlier at age 38.
The police have become such an omnipresent force in the town that the kids treat them almost as part of the scenery. When Billy and the dance teacher’s daughter Debbie (Nicola Blackwell) are walking along discussing the merits of Billy continuing with the class, she absent-mindedly drags a stick across the shields of the policemen. In the end, Billy ends up joining the class, but he has to take pains to hide this from his father.
Pursuing a Dream on the Sly
One of my favorite scenes in the film is where Billy goes to the mobile Durham County Library and thumbs through a book on ballet. The librarian sternly warns him, “I don’t know why you’re looking at that. You can’t take that out on a junior ticket.” But just then a striking miner being chased by the police runs past the library, and this distracts the librarian, partly because the miner can be seen mooning the cops. Billy slips the book under his jacket and takes it home. There he hides in the tiny bathroom and practices the ballet moves illustrated in the book.
Eventually, Billy’s father (Gary Lewis) discovers that Billy is taking the 50 pence he’s being given for boxing lessons and spending it instead on dance lessons. Dad is furious, as he tells Billy, “Lads do football or boxin’ or wrestlin’! Not friggin’ ballet!” But Billy realizes that the basis of his father’s objection is homophobia and responds, “It’s not just poofs, Dad! Some ballet dancers are as fit as athletes.” Father and son end up in a scuffle, and Billy flees, running in a way that’s almost a dance in itself, set to the strains of “Children of the Revolution” by T-Rex.
Billy seeks sanctuary at the house of Mrs. Wilkinson, where Mr. Wilkinson tactlessly starts off on a tirade against the striking miners. Billy interrupts this by asking, “What do you do, Mr. Wilkinson?” Debbie answers for her father, “He’s been made redundant.” While driving Billy home, Mrs. Wilkinson tells him she thinks he should audition for the Royal Ballet School and that she will help him prepare.
Later, Billy meets Mrs. Wilkinson alone at the Everington Boys Club and brings some personal items that are intended to inspire ideas for an audition dance routine. Among these items is a tape of “I Love to Boogie” by T-Rex, and Billy and Mrs. Wilkinson perform a joyous dance to it in the dingy gymnasium.
A Heartwarming Film
Billy’s plans for the audition don’t work out exactly as planned, but so as not to spoil things for you, I won’t say any more about the story. Anyway, it’s not the plot that makes this movie worth seeing–it’s a combination of memorable characters, a strong feeling of time and place, splendid cinematography, and fine acting. Most of all, it’s the way that Jamie Bell, who was 12 years old when the film was made, creates a character whose spirit soars.