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On Its Toes

Billy Elliot may seem familiar, but this blue-collar ballet flick hits all the marks

The setting of Stephen Daldry's uplifting comedy Billy Elliot, about a working-class boy who wants to be a ballet dancer, is a beleaguered coal-mining town in the north of England, circa 1984. A coat of grime covers the squat brick row houses, laundry flaps sadly in the breeze, and the locals all have the fierce but downtrodden look we've seen on the faces of British blue-collar blokes since John Osborne first looked back in anger. That's because the miners are on strike, money is short, and the edgy police are ready to break some union heads. We can feel defeat and danger in the air. This is hardly the place -- or the time -- for an 11-year-old to get his macho father and glowering older brother all lathered up over the notion of his becoming the next Rudolf Nureyev.

It is precisely the time and place, however, for him to succeed. For someone to succeed.

If, to regular moviegoers, this plot line sounds vaguely familiar, it should. In the underrated Brassed Off (1996), striking English miners took solace in their town's amateur brass band; in the far more popular The Full Monty (1997), out-of-work Brits lifted their spirits by reinventing themselves as a troupe of male strippers. Billy Elliot falls squarely into the same triumph-over-trouble genre, but it shouldn't be written off as an imitation. For one thing, the film's young star, an exuberant whirling dervish named Jamie Bell, is such a winning, witty screen presence that you can't help pulling for his plucky character. For another, the steely father (Gary Lewis) and the sulky brother (Jamie Draven) who oppose him sport vivid personalities of their own. For a third, Billy Elliot can be as howlingly funny as it is touching. If British filmmaking means to stage a comeback, it is likely to happen by way of nuanced, character-rich movies like this.

Coal miner's son: Jamie Bell is such a winning screen presence that you can't help pulling for his plucky character.
Giles Keyte
Coal miner's son: Jamie Bell is such a winning screen presence that you can't help pulling for his plucky character.

Daldry, a stage director making his movie debut, and screenwriter Lee Hall don't hesitate to load the deck emotionally, but that comes with the territory. That Billy's mother has died young comes as no great surprise; neither does the gruff, chain-smoking ballet teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), who takes a special interest in him. For coloration, the moviemakers also provide the boy with a doddering grandmother (Jean Heywood) who still imagines she could have been a great dancer, as well as with a best friend (Stuart Wells) who turns out to be gay. Meanwhile, the film takes pains to point out that Billy himself is resolutely heterosexual. When we first see this scrawny kid in physical action, he's getting his clock cleaned at the local boys' boxing club, and when he finds himself drawn to the girls' ballet class being conducted in the same gymnasium, he worries about it. "I feel like a sissy," he admits.

That's nothing compared to Dad's outrage when he discovers Billy spinning pirouettes. "Lads do football or boxing or wrestling," he rants, "not ballet." The father spits the word out like an obscenity, and we know right away that the birth of this artist is going to involve some labor pains. Widowed, on strike and frustrated, Dad has enough trouble putting food on the table. He doesn't need a son he thinks is a poof.

Inevitably, familial love goes to battle with ignorance. When Mrs. Wilkinson urges Billy to follow his calling and audition for the Royal Ballet School in London, the real crisis erupts. Will the young hero, uncertain about his own abilities and almost everything else, have the guts to be true to himself? Will the father be able to set aside prejudice and honor his son's dream? You don't need a film critic to answer such questions. Suffice it to say that director Daldry has a splendid way with actors and a keen eye for the comic potential and the deeper meanings of a scene. Witness the Elliots' heart-wrenching Christmas celebration, with the impoverished family sitting in its tiny kitchen wearing paper hats, the mortified father barely containing his shame.

If there's more than a hint of hokeyness in all this, so be it. Movies can (and most often do) commit worse sins than strumming away on our heartstrings. The strumming becomes not just palatable but downright enjoyable if it is decorated, as it is here, with some sharp observations on class warfare, the confusions of boyhood and the stubbornness of provincial thought.

Balletomanes won't confuse Billy Elliot with transcendent dance films like The Red Shoes or I Am a Dancer anytime soon, because the blue-eyed, jug-eared, splay-footed kid we meet here has trouble getting out of his own way for most of these 100 or so minutes. But it would be a mistake to undervalue Billy's enthusiasm, his need for escape or the purity of his desire. As we all should know by now, from such small steps do great leaps spring.

 
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