REVIEW: Mixed Steps, Pleasing and Predictable "Billy Elliot"
by Mark Holcomb
(indieWIRE/ 10.12.00) -- Midway through the new dance drama "Billy Elliot," middle-aged ballet instructor Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters) tells her star pupil Billy (Jamie Bell) the story of "Swan Lake." Her faraway tone indicates that its themes of love and betrayal have personal significance, and Billy is rapt. "What happened?" he demands when she hesitates to reveal the fates of the Swan Queen and Prince Siegfried. "What do you think?" she replies bitterly, "He asked her to marry him and then went off with somebody else."
If only the film in which this exchange takes place held such surprises. Cast from the same "follow-your-dream-whatever-the-obstacles" mold as "Flashdance" (1983), "Dirty Dancing" (1987), and this month's "Bootmen," "Billy Elliot" is, like its predecessors, frequently charming, occasionally exhilarating, and never less than completely predictable. Tyro director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter Lee Hall add a few twists to the formula, but their exercise in cinematic uplift remains faithful -- if not exactly slavish -- to its genre roots.
Set in a small coal-mining town in Northern England during the mid 1980s, "Billy Elliot" focuses on the precarious development of its preadolescent hero's gift for dancing. Forced into boxing lessons by his clueless father (Gary Lewis), Billy sneaks instead into Mrs. Wilkinson's all-girl ballet class, where she recognizes and nurtures his talent at the expense of her other students. Billy fares less well at home. The Elliots, including older brother Tony (Jamie Draven) and a feeble grandmother (Jean Heywood), are quietly reeling from the recent death of Billy's mother, while Dad and Tony also suffer the indignity of a long miner's strike. Macho and brutally repressed, Dad brooks no rebellion from either of his sons.
Hardly the ideal setting for a burgeoning prodigy, but Billy nevertheless attends his secret lessons and thrives under the tutelage of Mrs. Wilkinson. She urges him to apply to the Royal Ballet School in London, but the boy's ruse is uncovered and he's forced to miss an interview at the school. Thanks to Dad, Billy's dance training and friendship with Mrs. Wilkinson come to an end.
The elder Elliot inexplicably relents, however, when he spies his son dancing with a cross-dressing pal (Stuart Wells) in an empty social club on Christmas Eve. Dutifully converted by the boy's talents (if not his taste in friends -- Billy's inconclusive sexuality is a running subtext), Dad flirts with scab-hood at the mine in order to scrape together enough dosh for Billy's RBS application. The equally converted townspeople pitch in, and Dad eventually accompanies Billy to a tense interview in London.
Deep predictability and occasional dragginess aside, "Billy Elliot's" inherent lightness and game artificiality make it hard to dislike. The improbable, squeaky-clean milieu (you could eat out of the gutters in Billy's vibrantly hued hometown, though, sadly, no one does) is as easy to overlook as the cringe-inducing '80s-style music video routine in which he and Mrs. Wilkinson indulge (be forewarned: legwarmers are involved). A likable, committed cast helps.
Walters, best remembered for 1983's similarly themed "Educating Rita," nicely undercuts Mrs. Wilkinson's tired disappointment with humor and grit, which makes her disappearance three-quarters of the way through the film all the more frustrating. Young Jamie Bell, a little too aware of the effect of his winningly crooked grin, never quite locates Billy's ambivalent drive or awkward grace, but he does capture the sheer physicality of someone who was born to move: his dancing is genuinely invigorating to watch. And Gary Lewis, as reliably tortured as ever, gives a North Yorkshire spin to the word "ballet" that's almost worth the price of admission.
That these performances are differently, inconsistently pitched is understandable considering Daldry's first-timer status. What's harder to ignore is "Billy Elliot's" odd, unsuccessful mix of theatrical whimsy and social realism. Hall clearly means to link Billy's struggle for self-expression with the miners' efforts to better their working conditions. But not only do we never see those conditions, the film's well-fed, sanitized ambiance makes it seem as if the miners are striking out of laziness or spite. The ennui and oppression, not to mention the ubiquitous presence of strike-breaking cops, are merely window dressing to give "Billy Elliot" a gravity it doesn't need and can't support. Ken Loach this is not. Then again, it's slightly absurd to ask a film with generous helpings of T-Rex on the soundtrack to lighten up.
[Mark Holcomb is a freelance writer who has written about movies for The Village Voice and Shout magazine.]