Billy Elliot

  • Title: Billy Elliot
  • Director: Stephen Daldry
  • Date: 2000
  • Studio: Universal (Working Title Films, BBC Films, et al)
  • Grant Funding: Arts Council of England
  • Genre: Drama
  • Cast: Julie Walters, Gary Lewis, Jamie Draven, Jamie Bell (as Billy)
  • Format: Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format: R2, PAL (Anamorphic Widescreen)

“[Ballet is normal] For girls. Not for lads, Billy. Lads do football, … or boxing, … or wrestling. … Not frigging ballet.” — Jackie Elliot, Billy’s father.

I received Billy Elliot as a gift and knew nothing about it the first time I watched it. But it is, nevertheless an excellent drama, set for the most part in a small British mining town in Northern England (County Durham), in the late 1970s or possibly the early 80s during a major Mine Union strike. Billy is 11, and his life has already been torn apart by the death of his mother. Now, he, his gran, and his father and older brother are merely existing in a flat that’s really only one or two rooms. Both his father and brother are miners, and, because of the strike, there’s very nearly no money for the family.

Billy’s only solace is music, but since the death of his wife, Billy’s father forbids anyone to play her piano or to listen to the record player. For recreation, Jackie sends his son to boxing lessons at the local community hall. Since the lower level’s been turned into a soup kitchen to feed the striking miners, Mrs. Wilkinson’s ballet class is also moved upstairs to share space with the boxing coaching. Billy, horrible at boxing, watches the girls with envy, and one day goes and tries it out. Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), sees special raw talent in Billy and teaches him, as well as being tough on him.

Meanwhile, things for the miners are getting worse and worse as the police are called in the escort scabs into the mine to work. Billy’s brother, Tony, is the union leader, and thus, is wanted by the police. His father is doing his best to make ends meet, but he’s a mess since the loss of his wife. Billy’s best friend, Michael, is gayer than a Christmas tree, much to the surprise of the totally straight Billy — who’s also interested in his dance instructor’s daughter, Debbie.

Finally, Jackie Elliot discovers his son is not going to boxing lessons like he thought but to ballet. Fearing his son is a “pouf” (e.i. gay), and not understanding why he would want to dance, he forbids his son from going to the dance school. Billy, however, continues to take secret private lessons from Mrs. Wilkinson. She, then, arranges for Billy to go to an audition for the Royal Ballet School in London that’s being held in Newcastle. Billy has every intention of going, but his brother is chased down, beaten, and arrested by the police and he spends the day at the court house instead.

Mrs. Wilkinson goes to the Elliots’s house to confront Jackie — things do not go well, and Jackie forbids his son from dancing, seeing Debbie, or having anything to do with Mrs. Wilkinson. And the situation deteriorates. Billy continues to dance in the streets, or anywhere he can’t be seen. Finally, at Christmas, Jackie takes the family piano, a piano obviously loved by Mrs. Elliot, we can safely assume, and chops it up with an ax to use as firewood. As the piano burns, he wishes everyone a happy Christmas – which his sons and Nana return, then Jackie begins to cry.

Later, Billy now with only Michael as a friend, ends up at the dance hall. The two are playing around, Michael, in a tutu Billy has given him (we’ve seen Michael dressing up in dresses and make-up earlier in the film). Billy shows Michael basic positions in ballet and then begins to dance. The boxing instructor sees this, gets Jackie and brings him to see. But when his father walks in, Billy dances — first Irish Step, then American Tap, and then Ballet. Jackie is astounded and realizes his son has real talent. He’s also seeing just how hopeless the situation is in their town — that working in the mines is no place for his son. He goes to Mrs. Wilkinson to find out about getting Billy into the Royal Ballet School and finds out it will take about two thousand Pounds.

Not having the money, knowing no one in town who works (or did work) has the money, the next day he goes to the place where the scab workers are picked up. Even though he’s a hard and tough man, the play of emotions on his face as the bus approaches the mine show just how awful he feels — he’s caught between his principles, his eldest son (who’s led the miners out on strike), and his youngest son, and he has no place to turn. Tony, though, sees him on the bus and climbs the fence to get in.  He confronts his father, and Jackie breaks down, saying he’s doing it for Billy. Tony swears they will get the money another way and helps his father away from the mine.

Jackie pawns his wife’s jewelry, and he and Billy go to the audition at the Royal Ballet School in London. Billy and Jackie both feel completely out of place, with their harsh Northern accents and working-class values. At first, Billy is terrified by the audition, he answers questions in mono-syllables, and is nervous and frightened when asked to dance. When he finally does his own dance to music, he does quite well, but he’s afraid that he didn’t do the right thing, that it wasn’t a classical performance. In the locker room later, another boy tries to comfort him (unfortunately reminding him of  Michael’s advances — whereas he accepted it from his friend, from a stranger – he freaks). Billy freaks out and hits the boy. This does not go over well.

The panel of judges bring Billy and his father in — and both can’t answer any questions, they are both petrified. Until one woman asks Billy what it feels like when he’s dancing — and his eloquent answer floors the room. Later, he gets a letter…  he’s in. But, on the same day, the miner strike ends, and the union’s caved. Jackie and Tony go back to work, but Billy will have a chance at a better life. Years later, Jackie and Tony return to London to see Billy’s first performance in Swan Lake. At the theatre they run into Michael – who’s all dolled up.

Billy Elliot is a quiet movie, that often moves one to tears. The performances are excellent, especially young Billy and young Michael, both of whom are struggling with questions of identity in a town where entire families have done the exact same thing for generations. Jackie’s biggest fear about his son doing ballet isn’t, specifically, that there’s anything wrong with ballet — it’s that his son is gay or will be thought of as gay. One doesn’t want to think about what Michael’s going through (and the film doesn’t show it — a missed opportunity, there). The backdrop of the mining strike adds to the feeling of desperation that surrounds everyone in the movie — even Mrs. Wilkinson, who’s long since lost her interest in teaching ballet until she spots Billy. Definitely, a film that awakens empathy to its characters.

By the way – lots of harsh language in this one, typical of British or Irish films depicting the lower classes. After a while, you become immune to it.

Recommendation: See it!
Rating: 3.5
Next Film: Blazing Saddles