County Durham, during the endless, violent 1984 strike against the Thatcher closure of British coal mines. Widower Jackie Elliot and his firstborn, fellow miner Tony, take a dim view of 11 year-old second son Billy's poor record in boxing class, which worsens when they discover he sneakily transferred to the neighboring, otherwise girls-only-attended ballet class. Only one schoolmate, closet-gay Michael Caffrey, encourages Billy's desire, aroused by the teacher, who judged him talented enough for private lesson, to train and try out for the world-renowned Royal Ballet audition. Only the prospect of a fancy career unimagined in the pauper quarter may twist pa and big brother's opposition to indispensable support. Written by
To say that Billy Elliot is the best movie of 2000 is to damn it with faint praise, since this year's crop is pretty uninspiring. Better to compare it to movies of the past few years, and even then it would stand out. It is a phenomenally good film, and perhaps even groundbreaking in its own way, since it goes against the trend of quirky, violent, sex-obsessed moviemaking that's become so popular recently. We've finally been given a film with a good, almost mythic story, complicated yet believable characters, a masterful blend of emotional intensity and critical restraint, and a series of dance scenes that are authentic, inspiring and completely integral to the plot.
No wonder critics have been falling over themselves in heaping praise on Billy Elliot. No wonder it's been holding its own in the box office despite being shown in a mere handful of theatres (one-quarter to one- sixth as many as the big Hollywood blockbusters) and despite its receiving hardly any promotion at the moment. Its success is being driven by word of mouth. And what is the word? Here is a movie that appeals to your heart, head, funny bone, eyes and ears, and last but not least your feet, for the music and the movement will have you wanting to get up and dance. And it achieves all of this without insulting the intelligence. I sometimes wonder how the movie would have been done by Hollywood: Billy would have been made a more pathetic figure; the people in his life rendered more black and white; characters would have either remained caricatures, or made to develop in the blink of an eye. All such excesses are avoided in Billy Elliot, where the characters develop in a totally believable way, where Billy invites admiration instead of pity, and where the silences, looks and gestures all leave so much to the imagination. The dictum "Less is more" is clearly the guiding principle behind the film.
The buzz for Billy has been so positive that people sometimes come away disappointed that their lives haven't been changed. So don't go expecting a "knock 'em dead" Hollywood rollercoaster. Billy Elliot is far more subtle, though the emotional moments are all the more powerful because of that. You can however believe everything that has been said of Jamie Bell. He has an outstanding screen presence and carries the movie on his little shoulders with breath-taking naturalism. His dancing is honest and powerful, and very masculine. He makes you forget that all the other actors give the performances of their careers in support. If the Oscar were awarded without consideration for age, career, box office draw or Hollywood clout, Jamie and his movie would win hands down.
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