Billy Elliot (2000)
Written by Lee Hall
Directed by Stephen Daldry
In 1984 in the United Kingdom, the Thatcher government led an effort to shut down coal mines and oppose strikes as a means of union breaking. This led to violent clashes between striking miners and police to protect the corporation’s property and help get scabs into the mines. These strikes were declared illegal by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and by 1985, the unions had been weakened to the point that they took concessions that were much less than they had been fighting for. This is the background of Billy Elliot, an unexpected time and place to set this story. When I first saw this film around 2001, I did not expect to be introduced to this conflict, and it is a pretty great thematic element for Billy’s story.
Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) is an eleven-year-old boy living in County Durham, England. His mother passed away years earlier, and his dad and brother are miners taking part in the strike. Billy is left at home to watch after his aging nan and takes boxing lessons at the nearby gym at his father’s behest. The gym basement is where the ballet class usually meets, but one day, they must join the boys as the basement is being used as a soup kitchen. Billy watches the dancers practice and finds himself drawn to the performance. Billy decides to use the money given to him for boxing lessons to pay for dance lessons and secretly begins his development as a dancer. When his father finds out, he’s furious and burns with rage, overcome with homophobia and unable to understand why his son would do this. Billy is determined and won’t all his father to come between him and his passion.
Stephen Daldry is a director whom I haven’t ever developed a strong opinion of. I don’t dislike his work, but I have never fallen in love with anything he’s done. Other than Billy Elliot, he has directed The Hours and The Reader, among a few others. He is certainly interested in exploring characters, and his movies are never gimmicky. I would say I don’t always believe his pictures’ emotional weight; Billy Elliot has some moments that feel alienatingly performative. I don’t think every emotional beat in the picture is earned, and some moments are wrapped up a little too sweetly. I know that Daldry has a much more prolific theatrical career, so I suspect he’s better in that environment.
That said, Daldry does try to convey the complexity and difficulty of this situation at this time. Billy’s dad (Gary Lewis) is put through the wringer in this movie. He’s already a grieving widower when we meet him, and the financial strain of the strikes has begun to break him. There’s this simmering anger to his character, but never to the point that he feels like a villain. All his stability is gone, and he’s trying to make sense of the world. Billy’s love of dance is just something he can’t understand at the start; it challenges his notions of the masculine & that frightens him. This is definitely a feel-good movie, and by the end, he’s come to accept his son and love his dancing. That’s a very fairy tale sort of ending, and I get why the filmmakers chose to go that route; it’s just not my favorite thing. I tend to enjoy pictures where outsider characters break away from intolerant family and fashion their own accepting family.
One of the elements of Billy Elliot that doesn’t get enough praise is Julie Walters as Sandra, Billy’s dance teacher. She comes from a middle-class household, while Billy’s family is working-class near poverty. This dynamic fuels much of the conflict between Sandra and Billy’s dad. He sees her as a snob, thinking she’s better than people like him and trying to brainwash his son with bohemian ideals to ruin the boy. The more we learn about Sandra, the sadder a character she becomes. The life she lives was not the one she wanted, and there’s a jadedness to her. Because Sandra is so disillusioned, she is never a passionate, joyful teacher to Billy. She certainly recognizes his gifts but teaches him with a sort of disconnect we don’t expect to see in movie mentors. I thought she was by far the most interesting character in the film, someone who gets left behind while Billy succeeds.
Billy Elliot is by no means anywhere close to a fantastic movie from my perspective. It’s okay, but I think its exploration of its themes is just a tad too shallow for my taste. It’s a perfect candidate for a smart feel-good movie, but it doesn’t reach the highwater mark of something like Paddington 2, that finds a way to be both crowd-pleasing but go places you wouldn’t expect a family film to venture. There are some incredibly great pro-LGBTQ themes and moments that make the movie a charming watch overall.