Dir: Stephen Daldry. UK. 2000. 110 mins.
Prod Co: Tiger Aspect Pictures, WT2. Int'l Sales: Universal Pictures. Prods: Greg Brenman, Jonn Finn. Exec prods: Natasha Wharton, Charles Brand, Tessa Ross, David M Thompson. Scr: Lee Hall. DoP: Brian Tufano. Ed: John Wilson. Mus: Stephen Warbeck. Main cast: Jamie Bell, Gary Lewis, Julie Walters, Jamie Driven, Jean Heywood, Stuart Wells.
Imagine hitting a lottery jackpot and meeting the love of your life on the very same day. That's the kind of euphoric emotional rush that Billy Elliot delivers. Investing the cheer-the-underdog formula of a Flashdance with the flinty social realism of a kitchen sink drama, it has a feel good factor that registers off the scale. If the tear-stained cheeks and cheering crowd at the first Quinzaine screening are anything to go by then it can count on formidable word of mouth. Domestic and international prospects are bullish for a British film that even the most curmudgeonly will want to clutch to their bosom.
A confident, well-calibrated first feature from Royal Court Theatre director Stephen Daldry, Billy Elliot is also a first cinema screenplay by writer Lee Hall whose radio play Spoonface Steinberg gained renown for its ability to make grown men weep. Billy Elliot is set during the bitter conflicts of the 1984 Miner's Strike. Still shaken by the death of his wife, miner Jacky Elliot (Lewis) and son Tony (Driven) are among those determined to hold out to the bitter end in the last stand fight with the Thatcher government.
Elliot's younger son Billy (Bell) is marching to the beat of his own drum. A regular at local boxing lessons, he finds himself drawn instead to the ballet classes that share the same hall. More attracted to the athleticism of a grand jetee than the prospect of an upper-cut, he sheepishly joins the all-girl class run by Mrs Wilkinson (Walters). Soon, he reveals a flair for dance that dedication and hard work might turn into a vocation. The chance of taking his newfound passion any further places him in conflict with the macho prejudices of his working-class roots and the blinkered mindset of a father trapped by the bleakness of his own circumstances.
It doesn't take a genius to work out where the film might be headed from here but Billy Elliot negotiates its preordained path with skill and assurance, fleshing out the secondary characters and leading with its heart. The set pieces always deliver especially when Billy finally overcomes his father's resistance with an enraged, expressive display of his dancing prowess. Julie Walters offers a strong, subtly shaded dramatic performance as the boy's first supporter and Gary Lewis is equally effective as the father almost torn apart by conflicting family loyalties.
Newcomer Jamie Bell is the film's shining star handling the terpsichorean and dramatic demands of his role with equal assurance. He has a naturalness in front of the camera and an ability to let his blazing eyes and taut expressions reveal as much of his character as any dialogue. Unlike Dancer In The Dark, the sequences of tap, ballet and modern dance are staged for maximum impact but also spring organically from the boy's anger and frustration. Their heartfelt execution prompts spontaneous applause. Setting the story of personal growth against the death throes of industrial Britain lends the film an extra edge that works against the grain of its inherent sentimentality. That doesn't mean it won't provoke floods of tears. If you see the film, and you will, take copious tissues and dispense with the mascara unless you want to wind up like a Bosch painting by the end of the performance.