Archive Review: Billy Elliot (2000)

Dancing, passion and familial struggle are all tied together in the high-spirited “Billy Elliot,” the little independent film that could in 2000, when such films were drastically under- appreciated. “Billy Elliot” caught some attention however because it combines the dream-like fancy-free spirit of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films along with the social-historical context of the ’80s coal miner strike in England. Youthful optimism and social reality are at odds as seen through the young Billy (a very talented Jamie Bell) and the film doesn’t let either one completely win out, an admirable and unexpected quality for a story about a child.

Pre-teen Billy lives in a small England town where his father (Gary Lewis) and brother (Jamie Draven) are picketing as part of the coal miner’s strike, so money is scarce. His father then becomes especially angry to find out Billy’s been taking the money he was supposed to be using to pay for boxing lessons for ballet instruction instead. Despite his father’s disapproval at his son taking up a “girl’s” activity, Billy meets regularly with Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters) to prepare for the Royal Ballet School audition.

The feature film debut for both writer Lee Hall and director Stephen Daldry, “Billy Elliot” is a real triumph of art imitating life. In a stroke of inspired creativity, Billy dances when he feels it, when he needs to express emotions of anger or excitement or when he was something to prove. Scenes are intercut often to show how Billy’s drive to master ballet is indicative of a need for self-discovery, family approval and learning how to handle life’s challenges.

With a soundtrack mixing ’70s English rock band T-Rex with classical music and orchestration by 1999 Oscar-winning composer Stephen Warbeck, “Billy Elliot” takes on this true independent spirit. It’s far from the cheesy uplifting string music of an inspirational drama and more true to its historical context. Its much easier to sympathize with Billy’s yearning for movement and his description of “electricity” in terms of how dance makes him feel with modern music.

Billy’s dancing outburst scenes give the film the feel of a dance musical movie ala the Fred Astaire era of Hollywood, while his angry and emotionally withdrawn father as well as Billy’s own fits of irrational anger ground the movie in the struggles that surround the Elliot family on a daily basis. 

The film is also not a social commentary on gender roles despite the conflict of Billy wanting to dance and his father wanting him to box. Billy takes an unexplained interest in dancing and doesn’t exhibit any “homosexual” tendencies. This is about doing something you’re passionate about, not a child’s struggle with his gender identity. Billy’s cross-dressing friend is there to remind us that one thing is not connected to the other, but the film doesn’t waste time overdramatizing this small conflict in a greater story.

“Billy Elliot” is a special film, one that perfectly fits the magic of finding one’s passion within the troubles of real life and a cast that accurately reflects that vision from Daldry and Hall. It acknowledges that with good comes bad and with reward and hard work comes nervousness and discomfort. It’s a unique outlook for a movie based about a young boy and his dreams.

4.5/5 Stars

Directed by: Stephen Daldry
Written by: Lee Hall
Starring: Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Gary Lewis


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