Sunday, August 13, 2017

Lord of the Dance

Films: Billy Elliot
Format: DVD from Somonauk Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

I’ve almost certainly mentioned on this blog before that both of my daughters are dancers. When you tell someone that your daughter does ballet, they tend to assume that your daughter is about six and can do a clumsy plie while wearing a little tutu. My older daughter is 19 and graduated with a four-year degree in dance performance at 18. My younger daughter is 14 and spent last summer at the Joffrey in Chicago. I’m not fucking around when I say that they are serious dancers, and neither are they. Because of this, I’m not really sure I can be objective about Billy Elliot.

This is a story you’ve seen even if you haven’t seen this version of it. Our title character, Billy (Jamie Bell) is about 11 and lives in coal mining country in England. His mother has died unexpectedly, leaving him to be raised by his father Jackie (Gary Lewis) and his aggressive brother Tony (Jamie Draven), both of whom are miners and both of whom are on strike. He also lives with his grandmother (Jean Heywood), who is suffering from either Alzheimer’s or dementia. Money is tight, but Billy’s dad scrapes together 50p for Billy to take boxing lessons once per week.

Billy doesn’t really like boxing, though, and he’s not very good at it anyway. One morning, forced to work the heavy bag after everyone else has left, he attempts to return the keys to the building to the local ballet instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters). Instead, he ends up taking the ballet class and liking it a lot more than he likes boxing. Since the classes meet at the same time, Billy starts to attend ballet class instead of boxing.

You know where this is going, right? Billy’s dad and brother find out and lose their shit over Billy wanting to do ballet (since in their world that makes him gay). Since there is no calming influence of Billy’s mother, he has to continue to train and practice in secret. Eventually, Jackie is going to discover that Billy might actually be talented after all and will do everything he can despite his other son’s issues with it. Eventually, we’re going to get the ending that we want, more likely than not.

Honestly, this is the only issue I have with Billy Elliot at all. While there might be surprises in particular scenes in the film, there aren’t any surprises as to where the film is going to take us. We know this story from having watched a lifetime of films. Sure, this is often enough a story that centers on a sport of some kind rather than dance, but it’s that same plot in a new, British package. Even the working class roots of the characters is straight out of the movie playbook.

But here’s the thing: I don’t care. I genuinely don’t. I didn’t care when I saw this exact plot in Strictly Ballroom, swept away by the movie’s inherent sweetness and the joy of the characters. I have the exact same response here. I know the emotional beats that are coming and I still fall for them as they happen every time. When the ending comes, even though I know what’s going to happen, I can’t stop myself from being choked up at least a little.

And really, that’s the simple genius of Billy Elliot. Despite the striking mine workers and the protests and the hints of violence, there is a real joy to the film that pervades it. Even the desperately serious scenes, Jackie attempting to cross the picket line to try to earn money for his son, are honest, heartfelt, and strangely beautiful.

So let’s talk about the nominations. For the awards that this blog concerns itself with, those are for director Stephen Daldry and the screenplay. Daldry’s work here is good, and I like the way he films a number of the scenes. In particular, Billy’s aggressive dance of frustration when confronted by his brother is rather wonderful. He uses close-ups well and never gratuitously. The screenplay, as mentioned above, is a standard story, but it’s a standard story beautifully told.

In terms of performances, Julie Walters was nominated for her performance as Billy’s teacher in a supporting role. I like Julie Walters in general, and I rather love her here. There’s a sense of her character somehow wanting to rise above her station, desperate not for herself, but for the sake of Billy. She’s endearing in a gruff, not-wanting-to-be-working-class way. This is also probably the best role of Jamie Bell’s career, the sort of thing that starts people questioning about putting kids up for awards against adults, and in this case, the sort of role that wins him a BAFTA. It’s also worth saying that I think Gary Lewis was robbed of a nomination in a supporting role.

Like I said at the top, I probably can’t be objective about this. I’m too close to it and see too much of my own kids in it. So yeah, I liked it quite a bit, and I expected to. Nice when it lives up to expectations.

Why to watch Billy Elliot: It’s surprisingly endearing.
Why not to watch: It follows the formula very closely.


  1. I'm guessing that the actors were legitimately good as dancers on the screen. One of my brothers is a professional musician; the other has played violin more as a hobby, and both like to scoff at movie performances in which it's obvious that the musicians on screen aren't really bowing along with the music or doing the proper fingerings. So—this film passed the smell test in that respect, ja?

    1. Well, sort of. One of the joys of Billy Elliot is that Billy feels this need to dance, but he's completely untrained, which means he's a combination of moments of brilliance and moments of supreme clumsiness. There's very little in the way of professional dancing here, and it works exactly as it should.

  2. I too was charmed by this film; and have a dancing connection too (this is my 22nd year of dancing, though not nearly at the same level as your daughters). Britain is good at these kinds of films. You know where they are going, but they pull you in anyway. If you liked this, you may also like Pride, which about the support of gays and lesbians for the miners during the 80s strikes.

    1. I'll keep it in mind. In fact, I'll add it to the list.