I'm not quite sure what I make of BILLY
ELLIOT. A charming, delightful, wee, quaint yarn in the tradition of THE
FULL MONTY, LITTLE VOICE, SAVING GRACE, and BRASSED OFF, it's the story
of an charming, delightful, wee quaint lad (the eponymous Billy) who escapes
the squalor of his northern England mining village through his love of
dance. True charm is natural, unforced and accidental, and when it happens,
a preposterous film like THE FULL MONTY becomes a hit. Try to catch lightning
twice in a bottle, and you have BILLY ELLIOT.
old Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) is a coal miner's son in Northern England
during the brutal and futile 1984 miner's strike. A sensitive kid living
in a macho household with his Neanderthal brother and manly-man father,
he dutifully attends the boxing lessons that seem to be so important to
dear old dad. However, Billy is more intrigued by the ballet classes that
follow the boxing lessons at the local youth center. Inexplicably, he
ends up auditing the ballet classes, catching the eye of the chain-smoking
instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters). Wilkinson sees the pure raw
potential in this lad, and welcomes the break from telling her less-than-talented
daughter Debbie (Nicola Blackwell) to turn her leg out.
course, ballet is anathema to dear old Dad's (Gary Lewis) laddish aspirations
for his son ("Ballet? Boys don't do ballet. Boys to boxing, or football,
or wrestling", all spoken in those marvelous Northern working-class speech
patterns). While Dad and brother Tony (Jamie Draven) are hollering, throwing
rotten tomatoes at strikebreakers, and busting heads, young Billy is learning
jetes and pirouettes. When these testosterone-crazed specimens discover
that Billy is squandering his boxing money on a pursuit better suited
to a "puffer", all hell breaks loose.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Wilkinson encourages Billy to try out for the Royal Ballet
School in London, where he can develop his talent and escape the dead-end
hopelessness of his family. For Billy, it's time to make a choice between
family and destiny.
BILLY ELLIOT has all the right elements for a sleeper hit: iconoclastic
hero, kids using foul language, the crusty-but lovable teacher, some pretty
fair dancing, a great soundtrack of interesting pop songs you haven't
heard a million times, gritty English cities that we Americans find quaint,
a colorful, if senile, grandmother, male bonding moments, and goodness
and justice carrying the day. It also boasts a cross-dressing 11-year-old
friend(Stuart Wells) for young Billy to show that no, ballet isn't just
times, the film seems as if it's checking Adorable Moments off a list.
It's patently obvious that director Stephen Daldry understood that he
had potentially another FULL MONTY on his hands, and was bound and determined
to make it so. No matter that the film is rife with things that just don't
make sense -- not the least of which is Billy bounding around the studio
and streets, doing a bizarre combination of tap and Irish step dancing,
when his true passion, and that which he's studying, is ballet. And it
is that calculated, checklist quality that stands out most.
BILLY ELLIOT is singlehandedly kept from being the insufferable disaster
it ought to by the astonishing newcomer Jamie Bell; a gawky, jug-eared
kid who really can dance, albeit the dance of a boy-man who's not quite
at home yet in his changing body. Bell is strongly reminiscent of the
young Christian Bale from EMPIRE OF THE SUN, and at times his 12-year-old
face breaks out into a charmer of a grin that makes you see the heart-melting
grown man he will someday become. Bell is a natural, even in "Oh, puh-leez!"
moments such as reciting a letter from his dead mother that he's memorized,
or dancing in front of his horrified dad. Whether this is Bell's fifteen
minutes in the sun, or if he has a real career in front of him, remains
to be seen. But this newcomer is charged with the impossible task of making
this fresh, and very nearly succeeds.
U.K. cranks out actors the way the Dominican Republic cranks out shortstops,
and indeed, everyone in BILLY ELLIOT is strictly top-notch. As the adults
in Billy's life, Julie Walters, in the Brenda Blethyn role of Mrs. Wilkinson,
is a far cry from the ingenue she played in EDUCATING RITA. Brittle, disillusioned,
an aspiring artist trapped into teaching children that at which she could
not succeed, she's Mr. Holland and every other crusty teacher in film
history, yet manages to keep the character from being too much of an archetype.
Gary Lewis, who resembles a downmarket Ian Holm, is first rate as Billy's
dad. Lewis is a wonderfully subtle actor with nearly perfect comic timing,
and has some of the rare wry moments in the film.
is a film that the Academy is going to love. It will undoubtedly receive
a handful of award nominations, not the least of which will be the Haley
Joel Osment kid-nomination for young Jamie Bell. The motion picture industry's
love affair with sequels indicates that it hasn't yet learned that lightning
doesn't strike twice in the same place. BILLY ELLIOT is a nice little
film that would be nicer if it weren't trying so hard. A FULL MONTY is
a fluke. This film would have been far better served by making it a first-class
BILLY ELLIOT instead.
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