Rated R - Running Time: 1:50 - Released 10/13/00

Adding another jewel to the British crown of movies released in the last several years is Stephen Daldry's Billy Elliot, written by Lee Hall, which tells the story of a young man coming of age in a small, coal-mining town, who pursues a dream that is not only unusual for people of his low-income English background, but unacceptable to the sensibilities of his low-income English family members. Full of humor and yet touching and deeply meaningful, it features heartfelt performances by all its actors, especially the 14-year-old Jamie Bell who plays the title character. The first feature film by both writer Hall and director Daldry, Billy Elliott is a heartwarming tale impeccably presented.

Although Durham County coal miner and widower Jackie Elliot (Gary Lewis) and his teenage son Tony (Jamie Draven) are in the middle of a bitter miner's strike, and consequently low on funds, they scrape enough money together to send 11-year-old Billy (Bell) to boxing lessons in the town's youth center. However, Billy is not much of a boxer, and he soon discovers that his talent lies elsewhere. When the chain-smoking dance instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters, OBE, Educating Rita), must hold her girls' ballet class in the same gymnasium because of renovations to the building, Billy gets interested and tries out a few steps. Mrs. Wilkinson sees immediately that he has talent, and he soon becomes her best pupil. But when his father and brother find out he's spending his boxing money on such a girlish pastime, they are incensed. Jackie forbids Billy from continuing with his dancing, but Mrs. Wilkinson arranges to teach him on the sly, free of charge, until he is ready to audition for the Royal Ballet School in London. Then, even as the union-related friction between Jackie and Tony increases, Billy must convince his dad not only to let him go, but raise 2,000 pounds to fund the trip.

While this film is not exactly bursting with new ideas (a conservative parent railing against his child's artistic or non-conformist ambitions has been seen in a million films from Amadeus to Shine to October Sky — all the way back to The Jazz Singer), it is full of interesting characters and enjoyable performances. Needless to say, the title role is quite a demanding one, and the young Bell shows great promise, executing not only the requisite emotional skills, comic timing, and delivery of dialogue, but some pretty amazing dance sequences as well. Although the scenes in the classes involve mostly classical ballet, Billy's improvised routines feature a wide variety of styles from tap to modern to some very high-impact aerobic maneuvers, and Bell and director Daldry show Billy's frustration with great energy through these sequences. Daldry uses unique angles and some interesting cinematic transitions to segue from one scene to another, and his choice of music is eclectic and interesting. Also affecting is the ever-present police force, constantly on hand in riot gear to quell the strike-related violence that plagues the area. Good performances abound from Lewis, Draven, and Walters, as well as Stuart Wells as Billy's cross-dressing school chum, Nicola Blackwell as Mrs. Wilkinson's daughter Debbie, and the elderly Jean Heywood as Billy's supportive but senile grandmother. Also making a few appearances is Janine Birkett as Billy's deceased mother, who is always on his mind.

Billy Elliot is not by any means a new story, but it is so full of likeable characters, nice relationship work, and good dancing, that it draws us in nonetheless. ****½

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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