English Title: Billy Elliot
Country of Origin: Britain
Studio: Tiger Aspect, Working Title, BBC Films/Universal Focus
Director: Stephen Daldry
Screenplay: Lee Hall
Cinematographer: Brian Tufano
Editor: John Wilson
Runtime: 110 minutes
Genre: Social Realism
Billy Elliot is an 11-year-old boy who lives in Durham with his father Jackie, older brother Tony and grandmother, his mother having passed away years before. Like many of the men in Durham, Jackie and Tony are coal miners on strike. But Billy has a passion for dancing and wants to attend ballet lessons, much to his father and brother's embarrassment and disapproval. Billy's dancing talent blossoms despite his family's objections and their poverty. Mrs Wilkinson, the local dance teacher, notices Billy’s devotion to ballet and allows him to join her all-girl class. Eventually, Jackie and Tony support Billy’s desire to become a ballet dancer when Mrs Wilkinson presents him with a life-changing opportunity to audition for the Royal Ballet School in London.
Central to Billy Elliot’s narrative is the exploration of masculinity in a northern England, working-class context set against the backdrop of the notorious 1980s’ miners' strike. When Billy (Jamie Bell) has to attend an all-girl ballet class to realize his ambitions, he struggles against the expectations of his hyper-masculine father and brother. The safe, nurturing, feminine world of ballet shelters him from the difficulties of poverty and violence, and the film juxtaposes the beauty of classical music and ballet with the conflict between the male strikers and riot police. Through ballet, Billy glimpses the bourgeois worlds of his teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters) and the London ballet academy, where he feels so out of place that he hits a boy who shows him kindness. The scene at the ballet academy underscores Billy’s position as a universal misfit: in Durham, his artistic sensibilities marginalize him, and in London, he is so out of his element in the opulent surroundings that he is nearly incapable of auditioning. During the audition, when asked when he became interested in ballet, he initially mumbles, ‘dunno’. Although dancing is Billy's raison d’être, the reason for this is inexplicable; as his father Jackie (Gary Lewis) explains: ‘The boy is always dancing, it is his nature, his essence.’
The film’s gender politics colour the oedipal conflict between Jackie and Billy. Although Billy attempts to argue against his father, explaining that male ballet dancers are athletic, Jackie refuses to accept Billy for who he is: a dancer. In Billy’s words: ’Just because I like ballet doesn’t mean I’m a poof.’ Or does it?—the film skirts around the issue of Billy’s sexuality, which is sublimated into his one true love, ballet, as he rebuffs romantic advances from female and male classmates.
Billy Elliot also traces Jackie’s emotional journey from denial to acceptance. Through Billy's determination and transformation, Jackie experiences a catharsis. He nearly destroys himself and all that he stands for by crossing the picket line to earn money for Billy’s lessons. Yet in doing so, he openly breaks down.
Jackie’s breakdown and journey to sensitivity as well as tolerance makes Billy Elliot a male melodrama. Billy becomes Jackie’s emotional surrogate, through whom Jackie lives vicariously. When Billy auditions for ballet school, Jackie radiates joy, pride and finds a possibility of redemption despite the bleak outlook for the striking miners.
In Billy Elliot, dance transcends poverty, social discord, and darkness – of vision, of mindset and of the coal mine. Ballet itself seems to undergo a gender reversal: while at the start of the film, ballet was the realm of girls, by its closing sequence, ballet is masculine: the dancers are all male and the featured audience members appear almost entirely male as well, including Jackie, Tony (Jamie Draven), Billy’s former schoolfriend Michael (Merryn Owen) and Michael's male companion. The homosocial company in which the film closes allows Jackie to accept his son for whom he has become: no longer a boy among girls, he is now a man among men.
Author of this review: Marcelline Block
Peer reviewer: Marcelline Block