Billy Elliot (review)

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Dancer in the Dark

Anyone who has chosen the creative road, the one less traveled through life, knows the derision and opposition that lifestyle can garner from family and acquaintances. Artists and writers and actors have all had to listen to the You Should Get a Real Job, With Insurance and a Pension speech from well-meaning but clueless aunts. Some of us lucked into supportive parents; others have learned how to deal with disappointed moms and dads. It’s hard enough navigating such a path as an adult. But what if you’re an 11-year-old boy in an English coal-mining town who’s just gotta dance? What do you tell your dad?

If you’re Billy Elliot, you tell your dad nothing and keep secretly spending your boxing-lesson money on ballet classes.
You could call this overwhelmingly wonderful movie Boydance, the diametric opposite of the recent Girlfight: Boy unexpectedly discovers himself on the dance floor. But what he learns about himself are not the kinds of things that mesh well with the expectations of those around him. If you liked My Dog Skip and October Sky, if you’re moved by stories about being different in a conformist small town and being sensitive and expressive in a place in which people don’t know how to deal with that, I promise you that you will love Billy Elliot.

Billy (13-year-old newcomer Jamie Bell) is so enrapt a music lover that he can’t not move to music, any music, whether it’s old standards or rock ‘n’ roll, like on the records he sneaks listening to, the ones belonging to his perpetually angry older brother, Tony (Jamie Draven). So when Billy finds his toe tapping to the tinkly piano music accompanying the girls’ ballet class that has temporarily invaded the gym where he’s learning boxing, Billy wanders over, his curiosity overcoming his boyish reluctance to be seen anywhere near a tutu. The brusque, chain-smoking instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson (the incomparable Julie Walters: Titanic Town), immediately enlists him in her class, issuing him a pair of slippers and demanding her 50-pence fee. Billy is hooked from his first ballet lesson, so the slippers get hidden under his mattress at home and the 50p his dad, Jacky (Gary Lewis: Orphans), gives him for boxing goes instead to Mrs. Wilkinson.

Billy has good reason to keep his new hobby quiet. With the town in the grips of a coal miners’ strike, Jacky and Tony are both out of work, and money Dad is willing to spare for a manly pursuit like boxing would surely be rescinded if he found out it was going toward something sissy, like ballet lessons. Billy’s dilemma — loving dance and displaying a startling if raw talent for it but needing to keep it to himself — is reflected in the turmoil of his coal-mining town. The strike is a violent one, with cops in riot gear occupying the streets to keep the peace between strikers and scabs. Billy certainly can imagine the reaction to his secret. His only comfort comes from Mrs. Wilkinson, who becomes an emotional replacement for Billy’s mother, dead for several years; his senile grandmother (Jean Heywood), who happily shares stories of going to see Fred Astaire at the pictures even if she can’t remember who Billy is at times; and his friend Michael (Stuart Wells), who has a secret of his own.

So with a father and an entire town to win over, and a strange, previously inconceivable new life to embark upon, how will Billy do it? With his dancing, of course. And Jamie Bell is a dancer to bring tears to your eyes, flying across the gym floor or floating down the street — Billy is a kid who doesn’t walk home from school, he Gene-Kelly-swings home down cobblestone streets like the gravity is lighter in his world. Even raging against the inevitable rejection by his father, he turns his kicking and yelling into an angry scuffle and shuffle, not just letting loose his fury but expelling it with rhythm and a furious grace. This kid — Jamie and Billy both — comes alive when he’s dancing. He is pure joy when he moves.

It’s not only Bell’s extraordinary ability that keeps the film real and away from the schmaltz it’s so easy for films like this to fall in to. Director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter Lee Hall bring Billy Elliot to life with particularly English verve and wit. “You look like a right wanker to me, son” the ballet-class piano player tells Billy cheerfully; a little girl drags a stick along a brick wall that suddenly turns to a wall of cops’ plastic riot shields, and she drags on, unfazed.

But what makes Billy Elliot so effective and so moving are the things that are only hinted at and never directly expressed: the loss of all that gets left behind as we outgrow the worlds of our childhoods, and the loss of the roads not taken; the ineffable sadness of growing up and leaving the comfort and surety of home behind. These are sadnesses that don’t even occur to us at the time but become clear only in retrospect, which is why films like Billy Elliot and My Dog Skip and October Sky reduce even the most stoic adults to whimpering blobs of jelly.

Did I say how wonderful Billy Elliot is? Let me say it again: this is three-hankie wonderful. Be prepared to sit all the way through the credits, and hope they don’t turn the lights up too soon when it’s over, at least not if you look as much a wreck as I do after a good long happy cry.

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