Billy Elliot (2000)

reviewed by
David N. Butterworth

A film review by David N. Butterworth
Copyright 2001 David N. Butterworth
*** (out of ****)

The hardships of life in the North of England in the mid-'80s, and how an eleven-year-old boy struggles to overcome those hardships through the expressive outlet of dance, are effectively dramatized in "Billy Elliot," an unashamedly "feel good" movie that draws upon the charismatic charm of its lead, newcomer Jamie Bell. Bell is excellent as the toe-tapping titular Billy who, without his overbearing father's knowledge, hangs up his boxing gloves and spends his 50p a week on ballet lessons given by the crotchety, chain-smoking Mrs. Wilkinson (an equally adept Julie Walters), who soon comes to recognize Billy as Royal Ballet School material. For all of its successes, though, "Billy Elliot" is hamstrung by scenes and directorial decisions which work against it. On the plus side, Stephen Daldry's film evokes a difficult time and place--County Durham set during the infamous coalminer's strike of Thatcherian England--with bleak and bludgeoning accuracy (a young girl rattles a stick along a brick wall and onto the perspex shields of strike police without skipping a beat). Likewise the writing (by Lee Hall) is solid and the performances are wonderful (especially Walters, who shines like a beacon among the omnipresent slag heaps). And the mix of T. Rex songs on the soundtrack help pinpoint the film in terms of its cultural chronology. But the hard-headed Dad (an able Gary Lewis), who steadfastly refuses to cross the picket lines, all too quickly caves in to Billy's "bally" dream, turning into a blubbering imbecile in the process. Furthermore, the many dance sequences, which should be inspirational, somehow lack the emotional impact necessary to pull this otherwise effective drama into greatness (Billy "acting out" to "The Jam's A Town Like Malice," for example, plays as naturally as gatecrashers at a wake). And that end-credits song is just plain embarrassing. "Billy Elliot" feels good all right, but it should have felt even better.

David N. Butterworth

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