Billy Elliot

Directed by Stephen Daldry
Starring: Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Jamie Draven, Gary Lewis, Jean Heywood, Stuart Wells.
MPAA Rating: R for language.

Review by Matt Heffernan <matt@filmhead.com>
November 7, 2000

I think that the people who run Hollywood hate me. Most of the studio films lately have been mediocre at best, but often inexcusably bad. I needed Billy Elliot for my own sanity. Perhaps the British film industry cannot support a project like Charlie's Angels -- but I'm starting to think that it's a good thing. Instead, they have to focus on telling stories and creating characters. You know, all the stuff that Charlie's Angels was missing -- the elements that make a good film. Billy Elliot will probably never make $40 million, like that Aaron Spelling tripe did in one weekend. Let me tell you why this is a great tragedy.

Jamie Bell makes his film debut as Billy Elliot, an adolescent boy who grew up on the Durham coal fields, where his father (Gary Lewis) and older brother (Jamie Draven) work. In 1984, a coal miner's strike put everybody out of work, and in trouble with Margaret Thatcher's anti-union administration. Billy's father wants a better life for his younger son, so he scrapes together 50 pence a day to send him to boxing class, in hopes that Billy can achieve the glory that he missed as a young man.

During one class at the youth center, a ballet class taught by Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters) had to start sharing the gym. Something about the graceful, structured movements captured Billy's attention, and soon he was using the 50 pence for ballet lessons instead. Mrs. Wilkinson sees that Billy has real potential, so she tries to get him into the Royal Ballet School in London.

You can probably guess that this was not a common career path for a boy from Durham. This film deals with the struggle between artistic ambition and working-class values, with a good deal of homophobia thrown in. Billy is not gay, but he is aware of the image that ballet has. His best friend Michael (Stuart Wells), however, is just beginning to realize his own homosexuality. This friendship offers the most interesting dynamic in the film because it is handled in such an unexpected way, so I'll leave most of it to the viewer.

A good deal of the film is occupied with the dancing itself. Unlike Center Stage (the other ballet film this year), the dance sequences are not spectacular in any sort of Busby Berkeley way. The title character of Billy Elliot is eloquently expressed through his dance: rough around the edges, but longing to be graceful; full of both hope and self-doubt. It is a truly remarkable performance that elevates the film from being just another local-boy-does-good story.

But that doesn't mean that it will make a lot of money. This coming weekend, Billy Elliot will be released to a few hundred more screens, so most people in the U.S. should have a chance of seeing it. Yet it won't make serious money because of the hypocrisy of the MPAA. Jack Valenti's minions have unjustly given this film an 'R' rating, preventing it from fairly competing at the box office. The rating is "for language", according to their official statement. I paid close attention for this R-worthy language, but it seemed pretty PG-13 to me. The rule of thumb is that you can say the F-word in a PG-13 film, as long as it's not in a sexual context. I'll admit that it found a lot of use in Billy Elliot, but it wasn't excessive, and never in anything more than an expletive context. My recommendation is that this film is perfectly appropriate for teenagers, and is a good film for families to watch together. So, take advantage of these stupid, arbitrary rules laid out by the MPAA, and make Billy Elliot a family-bonding experience.


For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Billy Elliot (2000)

Here's some merchandise for sale at Amazon.com
Billy Elliot (2000) -- VHS
Billy Elliot (2000) -- DVD
Billy Elliot, a screenplay by Lee Hall -- Paperback
Billy Elliot: Soundtrack -- Compact Disc


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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan