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Billy Elliot wraps a stock formula in a nicely observed
script by Lee Hall that avoids the obvious cliches, then adds a charismatic young actor
in the central role surrounded by skilled supporting players. Stephen Daldry has been
primarily a stage director - a few years back he took J.B. Priestly's 1945 play An
Inspector Calls and made it into a riveting, award-winning evening of theatre. Billy
Elliot establishes Daldry instantly as equally suited for film. He keeps the
potentially soppy sentiment refreshingly dry, finds every bit of gentle, character-based
humor, and, with cinematographer Brian Tufano (Trainspotting), discovers stunningly handsome and
telling visuals in unexpected places. Billy's story plays out against the background of a bitter strike by the miners; Daltry finds dramatic power in
the army of police carrying shields, like so many medieval knights, as they move to
contain the fury of the strikers. Billy's father (Gary Lewis, who shone in My Name is Joe) is gruff,
still in mourning for his late wife; the father-son relationship is put to the test by
Billy's unconventional, taboo interest.
The formula has its forebears: Rocky (working class boxer gets a chance at the
heavyweight championship), Breaking Away (working class student wins bicycle
race), and, most obviously, Flashdance
(working class girl with ambitions to be a ballerina). Billy Elliot adds
gender-reversal issues to the mix: young Elliot, in a family of macho coal miners, finds
his bliss in ballet dancing and aspires to the Royal Ballet School. While his father
believes he is at boxing lessons, Billy has discovered a ballet class under the tutelage
of crusty, chain-smoking Mrs. Wilkinson (nailed to perfection in the performance of Julie
Further exploration of gender issues is introduced with the character of
Billy's friend, Michael (Stuart Wells), who is gay and likes cross-dressing. Billy's
dotty grandmother (Jean Heywood) adds warm and humorous touches and a poker-faced little
girlfriend (Nicola Blackwell), turns a cameo into a star turn.
Daldry has an unerring sense of the theatrical, using tight closeups,
unexpected angles, and Fred Astaire clips, as well as choice music for the soundtrack.
Lush color and highly contrasted lighting give the film a signature look of its own.
But it is the performance and the dancing of young Jamie Bell that
supply the soul of this film and turn it into pure movie magic. Boyish - on the verge of
manhood - sensitive, gentle, and open, he is at the same time masculine, energetic, and
determined. When he lets go in a number of dance sequences that seem spontaneous (and
advance the development of the story), the sheer joy of his jumping, leaping, whirling
movement is ineffable, infectious, and incandescent. Bell retains an element of the
awkward adolescent with angular elbows that on occasion would make a balletmaster cringe.
But it is the uninhibited expression of his passion for dance, "like a fire in my
body, like a bird, like electricity," that transcends mere technical ability. It's
not the art of his dance, it's the heart of his dance that wins audience cheers - and,
perhaps, an Oscar nomination.