Billy Elliott (UK, 2000) ***
Directed by Stephen Daldry. Written by Lee Hall. Photography, Brian Tufano. Editing, John Wilson. Choreography by Peter Darling. Production design, Maria Djurkovic. Produced by Greg Brenman and Jon Finn. Cast: Julie Walters (Mrs. Wilkinson), GaryLewis (Dad), Jamie Bell (Billy), Jamie Draven (Tony) and Adam Cooper (Billy, aged 25).A Universal release. 90 minutes. R (expletives)
The story of 11-year old prole Billy Elliot is set in a small town in Northeast England in 1984. It is a grungy place like all the mining towns we have seen in British films. The place is not just joyless, it is downright depressing. I suspect it always was but now things have hit rock bottom. Margaret Thatcher has ordered the closing of many mines because they are losing money. I suppose the correct term is "not cost effective" -- like Presidential Elections in some countries.
What would a certain, big slice of British cinema --the biggest one, the one that deals with the working classes --have done without Thatcherism? One wonders.
The miners, that is, practically all able-bodied men in the place, are striking. It's a violent strike which pits them against hordes of police, and vice versa.
Billy is a schoolboy (seen just one in his class) who loves all sorts of pop music. It makes him kinetic. He wiggles, jumps up and down and moves with agility. He lives with his striking miner dad, his striking miner older brother Tony, and his vague, senile grandma. His mother is dead and sorely missed by all.
Billy is a good kid, takes care of grandma and some household chores. He goes regularly to the local (and grungy, of course) gym for boxing lessons, This is Dad's will and his preparation of his son for a tough life. But the kid is not gifted in that direction.
One day, after messing up his pugilism, as he lingers in the gym Billy chances on a lady's ballet lesson for a bunch of little girls in tutus. Somehow drawn to that class, he manages to join it, and is not only accepted by teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, but quite soon encouraged, then specially coached by her. She knows that she has a fine dancer-to-be on her hands. And she becomes, sort of, his surrogate mom. She is a champion chain-smoker, which strikes an overdone note since she could hardly dance with the kid with all the stuff he inhales around the clock.
Then again, perhaps the black-lung disease, the scourge of miners, may have built up in the atmosphere some sort of immunity to mere tobacco. Go figure.
The movie is discreet and does not push any of its elements. It moves at a slow but sensible, natural pace, even languishing, if compared to the frantic tempo of so many US films.
Dad is puzzled, at first worried that this is a sign of "poofiness" but comes to accept that the old status quo has changed. Especially when, after some sturm und drang, Mrs. W. wants Billy to audition for the Royal Academy of Dance. Which he does, and which makes him officially a dancing apprentice.
In an awkward post-scriptum, 13 years later Dad and Tony see Billy dancing what I take to be a major ballet role in London, (pronounced Loundon).
Billy is as natural as they come the way he is played by Jamie Bell, who began to dance at age six, comes from a Northern town similar to that of the movie, and gives to his part a quietly original, modest and realistic shape.
He is a real find. The rest of the cast are very good. The movie flows quietly like the Don River with no sudden changes, no particularly spectacular dances. Yet the violent background of miners vs. police is ever present, as is the cul-de-sac future of the strikers.
Curiously, the image that I remember best is that of the black-uniformed police, their transparent-plastic shields and their ominous sticks forming a massive line -- indeed, a wall--and starting to beat the shields in a way that's uncannily like the shield-and-spear natives doing exactly the same in "Zulu" and in "Zulu Dawn."