December 21, 2000 -- "Billy Elliot" is one of those British stand-up-and-cheer feel-good movies, but with a hard edge to it, like "The Full Monty."
The story concerns the struggles of a young boy to become a dancer against all odds in a tough coal-mining town. It is not based on a real story. Elliot, (played by newcomer Jaime Bell) sees some girls practicing for ballet in the same gym where he takes his boxing lessons. He becomes intrigued.
Billy's father, Jackie, (played by Gary Lewis of "East is East"), and his brother, Tony (Jamie Draven), are both union stalwarts. A long, bitter strike against the local coal mine is in progress and the Elliot family is suffering because of it. Knowing his father is opposed to Billy using his boxing money for dance lessons, he tries to keep it a secret.
The dance instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters of "Educating Rita") sees Billy as a once-in-a-lifetime dancing talent. She's not about to give up on him. Complicating matters is Billy's friend, Michael (played by Stuart Wells), whose budding homosexuality seems to call into question Billy's own sexuality. Billy's sexuality is under close scrutiny because of his passion for ballet dancing. He doesn't want to be thought of as a "puff" (British slang for a male homosexual). This word, and a great deal of profanity spices the language of the film. The choice of ballet leads him into constant conflict with the forces around him. It may be that writer Lee Hall overplayed the whole sexuality angle because it does take up a lot of screen time and it isn't all that relevant to the main subject of the film. Then again, the coal miner's strike is only peripherally relevant as well. As Steven Soderbergh said in a recent interview, a genre film is a great way to put social messages into a film without being so obvious. This film is pretty obvious with its social messages. It is about like dumping a tablespoon of catsup into an omelette.
Some of the dance numbers are pretty good, some are derivative. One dance number looked as if it was lifted from "Tap." Gregory Hines' angry prison cell tap is transported into an angry outhouse dance number in England. Hines does it better. Bell is a solid dancer who serves up some "Flashdance"-style numbers from time to time, a sort of mixture of tap, traditional, modern dance and ballet, with a little "Riverdance" thrown in as well.
Bell is also a fine actor, backed up by a solid cast. Lewis is great as the deeply conflicted father, who, despite appearances to the contrary, is willing to make almost any sacrifice to help his son. Wells is enchanting as Billy's delicate best friend. Walters does a wonderful job of showing us a woman with a tough exterior, but who has a generous heart. The cast all does a good job of showing how people, despite their prejudices and suspicions, often manage to do the right thing in the end. The dance numbers are generally well choreographed. The original music by Stephen Warbeck is rousing, the kinetic cinematography by Brian Tufano and film editing by John Wilson add to the power of the story and director Stephen Daldry pulls all the right emotional strings. This film rates a B.
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