British drama about a young boy in north-eastern England who learns to dance the ballet in the face of momentous difficulties. This movie features all the clichés you would expect it to: the coal-mine-working father who wants his son to like boxing, the mean and chainsmoking ballet teacher with a heart of gold and the elder brother who gets in trouble by fighting the police.

Billy Elliot made in the year 2000, was directed by previously unproven director Stephen Daldry and written by Lee Hall. The title role is played admirably by Jamie Bell, and in other roles we see Julie Walters, Jamie Draven and Gary Lewis III. The movie and its soundtrack have a distinctly rock character despite all the ballet, featuring tracks by The Clash, T-Rex, The Jam and Eagle-eye Cherry.

It might be good to add that the main character, who is supposedly a genious of ballet, dances in a way that my ballet-scholarship friend referred to as "laughable". Hey... it sure fooled me.

It's 1984, it's the middle of a miner's strike, and Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) is eleven years old. He lives with his Dad (Gary Lewis), his older brother Tony (Jamie Draven) and his grandmother (Jean Heywood), a lovely old lady, who is slowly going gaga. Dad and Tony are both out on strike and spend their days on picket lines, and life is as grey and unforgiving as the northern town the family lives in, especially since Billy's mum died last year. It's not mentioned within the family, but the absence of any gentle presence about the house is palpable.

Every week Billy heads off down to the local boys club, hands over 50p that his father can ill-afford, and takes boxing lessons. The trouble is, he's really, really crap at boxing.

Then, one day, he's left to hand over the keys to the club to the teacher of a local ballet class which is sharing the hall. He watches for a while, and since he has nothing better to do while he's waiting, he joins in.

Mrs Wilkinson(Julie Walters), the hard-bitten chain-smoking ballet mistress encourages him to come back, and soon recognises a raw talent in him, which she nurtures (at the expense of her other pupils). For Billy, dance fires his imagination, gives him an outlet to express his anger, his frustration and his joy, and makes him feel alive. Soon his weekly fifty pences are being spent on dance lessons rather than boxing, though he trots off every week with his gloves over his shoulder -- this isn't something his father would understand.

Inevitably, he's found out. His father is livid, and tells him that his money supply is being cut off, and from now on he can stay home and look after his gran instead.

Obviously this isn't the end of the matter. Mrs Wilkinson believes Billy stands a chance of being accepted by the Royal Ballet School, so continues to teach him, privately and for free, and arranges an audition

This is much more than a movie about a boy who wants to dance though. It deals with identity - Billy's discovery of who he is, and what he wants out of life. It deals with the expectations people have of each other, and how economic hardship and emotional loss manifest in behaviour. It deals with personal priorities and the compromises people are prepared to make for those they love. It deals with the onset of puberty and the awakening of adolescent desire, and it deals with disappointment and with hope.

Julie Walters, as ever, gives a solid, convincing performance as the tough but empathetic teacher, and Jean Heywood and Jamie Draven are both touching as the senile grandmother and the angry older brother. In addition there are a couple of excellent supporting performances from the other two children in the film -- Nicola Blackwell as Mrs Wilkinson's daughter Debbie, and Stewart Wells as Billy's best friend Michael who is recognising and coming to terms with his emerging homosexuality.

However, the real shining stars of the movie are Gary Lewis as Dad, and Jamie Bell as Billy - an unprepossessing boy, skinny and shock-haired with ears that stick out like jug-handles but a grin that lights up the screen. The complexity of the relationship they portray - dominance and defiance, the desire for approval and respect, their mutual pride, and most of all the depth of the love they have for each other and the difficulty they have in expressing it in the face of the harsh realities of their world, is astounding.

This is an absorbing, life-affirming film, well worth seeing.

A friend recently declared that he refuses to watch Billy Elliot, because he's sick of all those "plucky northener" movies which we've been getting ever since the surprise success of The Full Monty. Which set me to thinking, because I cried buckets at Billy Elliot while barely raising a chuckle for TFM.

Unlike oh so many movies that purport to tell a story of a community, or era, or event, through the coming of age struggle of one member, and end up about being about that one story (Brassed Off being a prime example in this particular genre), Billy Elliot is a film that tries to tell the story of one small boy and ends up being about everything: the miner's strike, the union battles, poverty, bereavement, authority, The North, the generation gap, the stifling homogeneity of a small community, fatherhood, boyhood, pre-teen sexuality, the role of a teacher in a child's life and a father's expectations of his son. The ballet bit is kinda secondary.

In the best sense of the word, and again in contrast to much other cinema recently louded, Billy's passion for dancing is symbolic of the struggle for survival, plain and simple, going on all around him. This is beautifully expressed in the fact that Billy's dancing is never allowed to improve during the film. Not for him the heroic butterfly-like transformation. Awkward, jerking and violently passionate, it is much more an expression of the turbulence underlying the lives of the characters than an aesthetic achievment.

Enough has been said above and elsewhere of the masterful acting, the well written dialogue, the quirky soundtrack and the excellent direction of the film for me to dwell on it here. All I can add is that if you haven't experienced the misery of the Northern English people during the early eighties Thatcher era, this is by all accounts as close as you can get to it.

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