Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Billy Elliot

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Billy Elliot

5/10

aka Dancer
UK 2000
director – Stephen Daldry
script – Lee Hall
cinematographer – Brian Tufano
stars – Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Gary Lewis
111 minutes

You’ll probably love Billy Elliot– it’s been rapturously received everywhere it’s been shown on the festival and press-screening circuit, including Cannes where it went down a storm. Maybe it’s just me – maybe I need to see it again – but I’m more than a little baffled by this reaction. Billy Elliot is a promising enough debut by a renowned stage director, but I can’t offer any stronger praise than that. Then again, I must qualify any criticisms I make my making clear that my relationship with the movie is probably markedly different from that of most critics and audiences.

The film is set during the mid-80s miners’ strike, in a County Durham coastal pit village – Easington, here somewhat arbitrarily renamed Everington. The main character is Billy Elliott, a schoolboy on the verge of adolescence who harbours a secret ambition to be a ballet dancer – secret, because his tough no-nonsense miner father thinks the lad’s taking boxing lessons rather than instruction at the barre. I found it very hard to watch the film with the objectivity that should be one of any critic’s starting points – because I was born in Easington, and I was an adolescent schoolboy in a (former) County Durham pit village during the mid-80s miners’ strike. Time after time, just as I was starting to get carried along by the story, some basic inaccuracy would snag my attention and stretch my patience with both Daldry and scriptwriter Hall, to the extent of outweighing their many positive achievements in the movie.

The makers of Billy Elliot have set their story in a particular place and time for good reasons – the miners’ conflict parallels the conflicts in the dancer’s family, and the conflicts in the lad himself, and so on. Issues of class and masculinity come to the fore, sharpened by the economic difficulties of the area, and the ‘period’ setting adds a resonant, specific backdrop. But I hope I’m not being pedantic when I say I think these benefits come at a price – and that price is getting the details right. I don’t swallow the (somewhat patronising) basic premise that a coal-miner would necessarily be outraged at his son’s preference for ballet over boxing. Colliers of my experience would be much more likely to actively dissuade their sons from following them “down the pit” – and surely the film would have been better off juxtaposing ballet with football, which barely seems to register at all : Billy, who has been brought up in the middle of Sunderland AFC heartland, is asked to bring some props for use in an improvisation session, and he turns up with a football – and a Newcastle strip, of all things. And although the film is rigorous in its use of Easington locales, there’s an unexplained scene which takes place 25 miles south on Middlesbrough’s transporter bridge – a terrifically impressive, cinemagenic structure, but would it have been too much trouble to write a line of dialogue explaining what these characters are doing so far from home?

Jamie Bell brings an impressive, instinctive physicality to the role of Billy, but these virtues are torpedoed by basic errors in his accent and dialect. For one thing, he’s way too posh to start off with – a major problem given the film’s essential structure. To pick a couple of representative examples from a wide range of possibilities, no working class child in County Durham, either then or now, would ever use the expressions “come on” or “nothing” or “this one” when talking with their friends – and I presume non-north eastern audiences wouldn’t find “ha’way” or “nowt” or “this’n” beyond their comprehension. Similarly, Daldry doesn’t seem mind (or perhaps even notice?) that Billy’s hotheaded older brother has an accent which starts off Geordie, then veers suddenly across the Pennines to Manchester as soon as he raises his voice – which he does all too frequently throughout the film. This character does provide the film with one of its sublest and most effective grace notes, however – fleeing the police during a picket-line confrontation, he runs in and out of various terraced houses, and in one he has the agility to sneak a swig out of a cup of tea, nicely echoing his brother’s nimble physical skills.

Then again, the obnoxious older brother character also serves to stir unfavourable comparisons with Ken Loach’s Kes, a film whose influence has hovered over every British film featuring children made since its release in 1970. Daldry is clearly his own man as a director, but it wouldn’t have done him much harm to have taken on board the aspects of simplicity, understatedness and uninflected poignancy that made Loach’s film such a uniquely powerful exploration of working-class northern childhood. As it is, Daldry is often guilty of striving too hard for effect – there are many set-ups and images that we’ve seen a thousand times before in films of this kind, such as the shots of Billy’s ballet instructor (a solid Julie Walters) standing in the gym she uses for her classes, rendered into (redundant) poetic silhouette by the shafts of sunlight slanting through the windows behind her. Just as Daldry’s choice of shots is frequently hackneyed, the script is similarly lazy in terms of characterisation – the only kid of Billy’s age we ever really see is his best friend, whose dawning homosexuality seems plonked down only to establish the heterosexuality of the main character. Similarly heavy-handed are the lapses into duff symbolism, such as when the family’s piano is broken up for firewood.

Only occasionally does Daldry really come up with a fresh or surprising way to tell his story – I’d include among these the opening and closing shots, which see Billy exuberantly bouncing up off an unseen trampoline in front of a vast background of tacky 1970s wallpapar – and only rarely does he really seem to want to explore what cinema can do. His decision to use (theoretically anachronistic) T-Rex tracks throughout the soundtrack is inspired, although again I couldn’t help thinking of how Lars Von Trier made even more original and impressive use of the same material during the chapter headings of Breaking The Waves, a film which so beautifully captured the look and feel of its 1970s period setting that at times you’d swear it was shot during 1973 and the film kept in the can until its 1996 release.

I think these comparisons encapsulate my bafflement at the reception Billy Elliot has been getting. If it’s such a marvellous film, what does that make Kes or Breaking The Waves, both of which I’d place in a higher category than this movie. Billy Elliot has its moments, and it does build steadily to a satisfying – if hardly very original – conclusion. And maybe it is just me, and my inability to forget where and when I grew up. But I don’t think that’s the case – I just don’t like to see cinematic geese being mistaken for swans.

by Neil Young