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'Billy Elliot'

Working-class kid prefers the footwork to the gloves in 'Billy Elliot'

Friday, November 10, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

OK, here's another movie you can compare to "Rocky" if you're so inclined. But the 11-year-old title character in "Billy Elliot" can't abide his boxing lessons. His father (Gary Lewis), a striking British coal miner, wants the boy schooled in the manly arts, which he considers essential to survive in their rough-and-tumble town.

'Billy Elliot'

RATING: R, for language.

STARRING: Julie Walters, Jamie Bell.

DIRECTOR: Stephen Daldry.



But Dad's in for a major surprise. When Mrs. Wilkinson's ballet class must begin sharing the gym with Mr. Braithwaite's boxing class, Billy is fascinated by the activities of the little girls in tutus. Before long, he forsakes pugilism for pirouettes.

But Dad better not find out. He has his own problems. The story takes place in 1984, in the midst of a year-long strike precipitated by Margaret Thatcher's government with hopes of breaking the power of the coal miners union. Dad, a widower, is a militant union man, and so is his older son, Tony (Jamie Draven). They know the situation is desperate.

Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters) recognizes Billy's dancing talent and starts tutoring him privately, even becoming a kind of surrogate mom. But how long can he keep up the subterfuge? And what happens when it's time for Billy to ascend to the next level?

Obviously, "Billy Elliot" takes its cue from a number of movies in addition to "Rocky." The plot is similar, in an ironic way, to that of "Girlfight," in which the female protagonist takes over the boxing lessons that her sensitive brother dislikes. It also recalls "October Sky," a film set in a dying West Virginia coal town where a boy harbors ambitions (to become a rocket scientist) of which his father disapproves. Another British film, "The Full Monty," focuses on steelworkers who lose their jobs when the mills close and try to cope by becoming exotic dancers.

"Billy Elliot" has a few tricks of its own. The main attraction is the young actor in the title role, Jamie Bell, who evinces a passion as fierce as that of Rocky Balboa punching slabs of meat in the freezer. When his frustrations overwhelm him, he gets a look of determination in his eye that could stare down a busload of scabs. He starts tapping away as if he could escape this dead-end town by stamping around with enough athleticism to knock down the barriers blocking off some of the streets.

As Mrs. Wilkinson, the estimable Walters demonstrates her own frustrations, seeing Billy not as a ticket out so much as a validation of her own worth and, perhaps, unrealized hopes. Lewis plays Dad with a red face and hard round eyes that you think will pop out of his head in anger. But he never seems like a comic character, although in at least one scene screenwriter Les Bell makes Dad defy his own beliefs in a manner that simply cannot be rationalized.

Director Stephen Daldry, however, does employ some interesting contrasts and sly comments. For example, when the police and the strikers square off with nightsticks clubbing heads and epithets flying, the soundtrack blares with the raucous sounds of "London Calling" by the Clash.

Other moments play against audience expectations. What seems like a moment of triumph for Billy comes off as almost tragic. Everyone becomes aware -- without having to say it -- that acknowledging Billy's future means recognizing the life they know does not have one.

The movie's theme, ultimately, is that one finds happiness by learning to be yourself, no matter how strange or eccentric that might seem to others. To quote yet another movie, "Singin' in the Rain," and our own Gene Kelly: "Gotta dance!"

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