Billy Elliot

Laura Clifford
Robin Clifford

When Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters, "Educating Rita") is forced to conduct her ballet class in the local boxing gym, she attracts a most unusual pupil. Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell), who's no good at boxing, takes to dance immediately. Unfortunately, widowed Dad (Gary Lewis III) and older brother Tony (Jamie Draven), tough striking coal miners, don't like the connotations associated with the dance in "Billy Elliot."

Laura:
"Billy Elliot" is a strange hybrid of a movie, part working-class-struggle reminiscent of the British kitchen sink films, part surreal fantasy. Well acted and unusually photographed, it has some major flaws, most notably that Billy's sudden attraction to ballet comes out of the blue.

Billy's world is a cramped male household in Northern England where he cares for his apparently senile grandmother (Jean Heywood) when he's not hanging out with his friend Michael (Stuart Wells). Older brother Tony is an aggressive striker, frequently bringing the law to their doorstep en masse. Dad Jackie's not over the loss of his wife and is struggling to tone down his older son's machismo while punching up his younger son's. He can't be convinced by Mrs. Wilkinson that Billy's Royal Ballet School material, but a defiant dancing display put on by Billy changes everything.

Young Jamie Bell is a natural young actor, shading Billy with beautiful subtleties. He's a good kid caring for his gran, but won't be pushed around. The glow that comes from his face as he smiles away Michael's concerns about outing him (Billy's ballet dancing enables Michael to come out - a truly silly story idea) exudes mature compassion. His dancing is energetic and appropriately unpolished.

Gary Lewis is dynamic and sympathetic as the tough dad who turns tender, supporting his son staunchly once his eyes have been opened (again the script betrays a character, as there's no evidence of dad's soft side in the film's first half, making his transition a bit startling). Walters is good as the crusty teacher ('I feel like a pussy' complains Billy. 'Well don't act like one,' instructs Wilkinson), yet we're given no idea of her dance background and she unexpectedly drifts out of the film's second half. I simply didn't get enough of Nicola Blackwell as Wilkinson's outrageously precocious daughter Debbie.

This could have been such a good film if Lee Hall's script had been given a major overhaul. Besides the problems already noted, he has Billy punch a boy inexplicably after his big audition - this from the kid who couldn't throw a punch in the ring. His characters learn to stop thinking of ballet as an occupation for 'pooftahs,' yet Billy's best friend comes on to him once he starts dancing. Billy shows no particular grace until he espies a tutu.

Visually, the film is often arresting. Billy dances up the street and hits a wall - the camera pans around and the seasons have changed. Debbie trails a stick along a phalanx of police shields as if they were a picket fence. A coal miner becomes enthralled watching a ballet rehearsal as his son paces the hall. Mrs. Wilkinson explains Swan Lake to Billy as they wait for a drawbridge to close. These images are accompanied by a radical mixture of music which ranges from The Clash to classical.

"Billy Elliot" makes a cliched story seem fresh, but one too many bad choices yank it away from the truly inspiring.

B-

Robin:
The coal miners may be in the midst of a tense strike in the northern English mining town of Durham, but young Billy Elliot still has to take the boxing lessons his father insists on. Billy would rather dance than fight, so when Mrs. Wilkinson's all girl ballet class has to share the gym space with the boxers, he sheds his gloves for ballet slippers in "Billy Elliot."

The simplistic script by first-timer Lee Hall runs a routine path with its inspirational story about going after what you love to do regardless of the odds and obstacles. Young Billy has a natural desire to dance and, with the help of the obligatory muse Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters, "Educating Rita"), overcomes every obstacle - principally the prejudice his father has toward dancers, who must be poofters. Inexplicably, dad's fears that his son is becoming a flaming homosexual are shoved aside with little fanfare and, suddenly, pop is crying, saying, "Let's give the boy a #$%&* chance!"

Most everything is handled in this perfunctory manner. Mrs. Wilkinson is intro'd as a dance dynamo and teacher - tough on the outside, but extremely compassionate inside. She pushes Billy to develop his talent and love for dance, encouraging him to apply to the Royal Ballet School in London. Mrs. Wilkinson then drops out of the movie, not even mentioned again, except for a brief coda when Billy goes off to fame and fortune.

Another problem, maybe with the script or maybe with the film's budget, is the sparseness of the supporting cast. Billy is a likable kid, but the movie only shows him having one friend, an obviously closeted Michael (Stuart Wells) whom likes to dress up in his mother's clothes. Michael heavy-handedly represents the "gay" lifestyle, but the kid doesn't dance, so I don't get it. The short shrift given to such background considerations gives the film a shallowness that the energetic performance by Jamie Bell as Billy can't overcome. Gary Lewis, as Billy's dad, also has a considerable presence, but is hamstrung by the banal development of his character's abrupt change of heart.

There is a good deal of visual imagination provided by the camera of Brian Tufano ("Trainspotting") with tightly shot, energetic dance numbers and tense movement when the action joins the coal mine strikers. One amusing tracking shot has Billy's little friend, Debbie, absently dragging a stick along a wall that suddenly becomes a phalanx of police shields. She continues to drag her stick as if along a picket fence, without so much as a glance at the heavily armored cops guarding the strike.

Jamie Bell's Billy is fun to watch as he tramps around in combinations of step dancing, tap, ballet and plain old foot stompin'. There's a lot of energy in his performance, making him the reason for seeing the film. The music selected, especially the nicely used overture from "Swan Lake," complements the story and the dance. Unfortunately, the earthy language negates the inspirational aspect of the yarn that might appeal to younger auds and frequent use of the "F" word may be a turn off. A silly epilogue that features the premier dance of an older Billy doesn't help. I give it a C.

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