movie film review | chris tookey

Billy Elliot / Dancer

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  Billy Elliot / Dancer Review
Tookey's Rating
10 /10
Average Rating
7.53 /10
Billy: Jamie Bell , Mrs. Wilkinson: Julie Walters , Dad: Gary Lewis
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Directed by: Stephen Daldry
Written by: Lee Hall

Released: 1999
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: GB
Length: 111


Billy Elliot is an eleven year-old (played by newcomer Jamie Bell) whose mother has died and left him the son of one striking miner (Gary Lewis) and brother of another (Jamie Draven). Billy is mortified to discover that his talent lies not in the traditionally masculine directions favoured by his dad - boxing and football - but in ballet. With the surreptitious help of a local dance teacher (Julie Walters), he applies for an audition to the Royal Ballet School.

Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Not merely the best British film in decades, superior even to those acknowledged classics about growing up, Kes and Gregory's Girl. It offers an emotional experience you'll never forget. It's a totally home-grown, British-financed triumph - and an even more brilliant debut for theatre director Stephen Daldry than American Beauty was for Sam Mendes. It's a tour de force of editing (by John Wilson), cinematography (Brian Tufano) and screenwriting (Lee Hall).
This first-time writer of unbelievable talent and maturity was himself a small boy growing up in Newcastle during the miners' strike in the Eighties; and the film has an authenticity that makes it as real and personal as one's own memories of childhood. Remarkably for someone who has emerged from radio, Hall appreciates that "writing" is not simply about dialogue; he creates memorable collages, juxtapositions of images that draw you into the narrative emotionally, however resistant you may be at first to having your tear-ducts pummelled.
This is the kind of story about a local boy trying to make good that you may feel you've seen many times before. It could easily have become a sad British rip-off of Flashdance or Fame. But there's a truthfulness about it, and a poetic quality that elevate it far above its predecessors.
It's notable for what it doesn't do. It doesn't hector us - as most British films would - about the rights and wrongs of the miners' strike. Instead, it allows us to experience the human tragedy that the strike represented, feel its impact on individuals, families and communities. The ease with which dissidents were called "scabs" enables us to understand the fear that Billy has of being different. And, like The Full Monty, it shows that unemployment is not an experience confined to the working class.
It doesn't sneer at upward mobility. It doesn't espouse some trendy notion of "laddishness". Nor does it badmouth men. Instead of taking the line on fathers which has been routine in almost every British film since the Sixties - that we are feckless, boorish, drunken and often violent - this one celebrates the tenderness which is a far more common characteristic.
Gary Lewis presents a heart-breaking portrayal of a father battling with his own prejudices and financial limitations, struggling to do what is best for his son. It's an even more gut-wrenching portrait of fatherhood than Roberto Benigni's Oscar-winning turn in Life Is Beautiful.
But Lewis is never sentimental. He is tough, tragic and often very funny - as is Julie Walters, equally remarkable as an abrasive woman with a failed career and a failing marriage, not only inspiring Billy but also having to accept that he will soon outgrow her.
No father or mother will be able to watch these performances without weeping buckets. But the miracle of the movie is Jamie Bell from Billingham, who seems to be able to do everything - from scrunched-up defiance to mischievous grin, bitterness to compassion, rage to joy. Helped by Peter Darling's choreography - set to well-chosen rock music by T Rex, the Jam and the Clash - his dancing has a power and virility that totally justify the film's view of dance as self-expression and challenge the prejudice that dancing is a sign of effeminacy.
The practical impact of this film on boys will be tremendous - and would be even greater had it not been saddled with a "15" certificate. I'm especially pleased for my sister Jill, who founded the National Youth Ballet without any help from the Arts Council, and still manages it without receiving payment for her services. She has moaned to me for over a decade about our national shortage of boy dancers, and this movie will help to change that.
Because of my sister, I've long been aware how many "ordinary" parents undergo extraordinary inconvenience and hardship to give their children even a half-chance of fulfilling their dreams, and this film will be an inspiration - and a deserved tribute - to their efforts.
Billy Elliot reminds us of so many virtues which tend to be ignored altogether in British movies or treated with sugary sentimentality in American ones: parental self-sacrifice, the love between father and son, and caring for elderly relations.
One of the best things about Billy himself is his compassion for his grandmother (Jean Heywood), as she hovers in and out of senility.
And the film treats the awakening of Billy's sexuality with a taste and sensitivity that is especially welcome at a time when each new Hollywood movie seems intent on outdoing its predecessors in grossness.
So at last some British film-makers have got it right. Somehow, producers Greg Brenman and Jon Finn have survived the anti-creative bias of BBC bureaucracy and the albatross of Lottery funding, to make a cheap, British yet totally universal tale that deserves to take the world - if not by storm, by charm.
As a beacon to guide other film-makers, it's of far more value than Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Its assured artistic and commercial success will cross all classes, ages and nationalities, and make clear the public's appetite for movies that offer emotive story-telling, positive human values and involving characters.
Billy Elliot is a joy, not least because it celebrates the kind of positive values that have been virtually missing from the cinema since the heyday of Frank Capra (with It's a Wonderful Life and Mr Smith Goes To Washington) in the Forties.
Indeed, it harks back further, to Dickens - the first great artist to spot that children can be wonderful protagonists because of their emotional rawness and intrinsic vulnerability. We care about Billy because we have all had dreams that our parents didn't understand, all felt frustration when success didn't come easily - or, in many cases, at all. That's why Billy Elliot is one of the most successful British films of all time.

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