In the sweetly inspiring British film “Billy Elliot,” the title character (played endearingly by Jamie Bell) is a normal 11-year-old lad with one peculiarity: He wants to be a ballet dancer.
Not so odd, maybe, except that he lives in a North East England mining town, where everyone is currently (the film is set in 1984) on strike. His dad (Gary Lewis) and older brother Tony (Jamie Draven), both grumpy and out of work, forbid such “poof” nonsense; besides, ballet lessons cost money. Still, Billy knows his dear, departed mum would have wanted him to do whatever made him happy.
Under the guidance of the strict, chain-smoking dance instructor Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), Billy secretly takes lessons and progresses so much that Wilkinson wants him to audition for the Royal Ballet School. Dad and Tony of course have a change of heart, and there’s a monstrously happy ending.
Jamie Bell is an extraordinary talent, both as a dancer and as an actor. His Billy is a vulnerable, lonely boy, taking care of his senile grandmother (Jean Heywood) and going to school while occasionally flashing a goofily handsome smile that will win Bell many movie roles when he gets older.
The film’s unabashed ebulliance comes largely from the dance scenes, though. Billy’s style is a combination of classical techniques and modern “Flashdance”-type stuff, and it makes for some highly enjoyable viewing, even if watching a dancer isn’t normally your idea of a good time. Billy dances out of happiness, frustration and sadness, and each time his feelings are clear in his movement. Though his attraction to ballet is, for him, ineffable, it’s easily understood to the audience: Put simply, dancing makes him feel good. Defeated and crushed by his dad’s unsupportive attitude, he starts tapping his feet anxiously, nervously, eventually building to an all-out high-energy dance number. A little unrealistic, maybe, but powerfully effective as a symbol for Billy’s potentially unattainable desires.
Gary Lewis delivers a fine performance, too, as Billy’s dad. His change in attitude seems disappointingly out of left field at first — until an emotionally climactic scene in which he attempts to cross the picket line and earn the money necessary to send Billy to the Royal Ballet School. His breaking down in his other son’s arms, much like the wordless dance scenes, conveys a great deal without a lot of dialogue.
Director Stephen Daldry, working from Lee Hall’s screenplay, keeps the mood whimsical and the working-class humor fresh. Is the family drama aspect a little cheesy? Some are saying yes, but I disagree. To me the film seems perfectly honest and genuine, and I’ll be at the front of the line to name it one of the best films of the year.
A (; )