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Movie Review

'Billy Elliot' Is a Bit Too Eager to Please

October 13, 2000|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

It's not enough, Willy Loman famously tells his sons in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," to be merely liked. You have to be well-liked. But focusing too much on being well-liked, the Lomans find to their eventual despair, can be a trap, and it's a trap that "Billy Elliot" falls into.

For there are things to genuinely like about this crowd-pleasing story of 11-year-old Billy, growing up in the coal-mining North of England during the 1984 miners' strike, who resolves against obvious odds to be a ballet dancer. But in its determination to overdo sure-fire material, "Billy Elliot" becomes as impossible to wholeheartedly embrace as it is to completely reject.

The best aspects of "Billy" all involve Jamie Bell, the young actor who plays him. A natural talent with an open smile and an eagerness for experience stamped on his face, Bell portrays Billy as a real boy's boy, a good lad whose defining trait is a constitutional inability to simply stand still.

Even before he takes a liking to ballet, Billy feels the music in his life, running and jumping when everyone else is marking time. The best scenes in "Billy Elliot" are invariably the dialogue-less ones in which the boy, briskly choreographed by Peter Darling, tears down the streets of his hometown, often with the vintage music of T. Rex on the soundtrack. Unlike its contrived dramatic aspects, this film's sense of the joy inherent in pure physical movement never lets it down.

"Billy Elliot" begins with a kind of reverse twist on "Girlfight," about a girl attracted to the world of boxing. Billy is busy taking boxing lessons when Mrs. Wilkinson's ballet class, displaced by the soup kitchen used to feed the striking miners, arrives to share the gym space. Almost viscerally, Billy is drawn toward this gaggle of baby ballerinas in white tutus and the strange but graceful movements they are learning.

The boy is rather more ambivalent about Mrs. Wilkinson herself, a tart-tongued woman of middle years (the perennially overripe Julie Walters) much given to dramatic gestures with a cigarette and a tough love approach to teaching. It's a shock to both of them to realize that Billy has a true gift for dance and that Mrs. Wilkinson has the ability to encourage and motivate him.

Certainly there is little in Billy's background that would make this talent predictable. His older brother Tony (Jamie Draven) would as soon smack him as look at him; his widower father ("My Name Is Joe's" Gary Lewis) goes off as regularly as Old Faithful; and neither man has had his disposition improved by participation in a strike that grows increasingly bitter and partisan as the film progresses.

The biggest hurdle for Billy to overcome, it turns out, is the familiar one of sexual stereotyping and family disapproval. "It's not for lads," his perplexed dad says of the boy's passion, and Billy finds himself continually educating the louts in town who think male ballet dancers are invariably gay.

There's of course a lot of potential in a story like this and no compelling need to push it as hard as possible, but the concept of leaving well enough alone is clearly alien to screenwriter Lee Hall and debut director Stephen Daldry. Not trusting the audience to have any reaction that has not been completely stage-managed, they lay on the sentimentality and the cliches as thick as they can, which is pretty thick. What results is a prime example of major studio emotional heavy-handedness seeping into even small independent films.

The situation gets even worse when Mrs. Wilkinson mentions that Billy might just qualify for acceptance in London's prestigious Royal Ballet School. No sooner is the goal presented than the filmmakers throw more obstacles in the boy's way than a Grand National Steeplechase, milking the situation almost beyond endurance. If "Billy Elliot's" plot had even a fraction of the grace andcontrol its dancing does, we'd all be a lot better off.

* MPAA rating: R, for language. Times guidelines: The language is strong, but the film is sweet.

'Billy Elliot'

Julie Walters: Mrs. Wilkinson

Gary Lewis: Dad

Jamie Bell: Billy Elliot

Jamie Draven: Tony Elliot

Jean Heywood: Grandma

Stuart Wells: Michael

Working Title Films and BBC Films in association with the Arts Council of England present a Tiger Aspect Pictures production in association with WT2, released by Universal Pictures. Director Stephen Daldry. Producers Greg Brenman, Jon Finn. Executive producers Natascha Wharton, Charles Brand, Tessa Ross, David M. Thompson. Screenplay Lee Hall. Cinematographer Brian Tufano. Editor John Wilson. Costumes Stewart Meachem. Music Stephen Warbeck. Production design Maria Djurkovic. Art director Adam O'Neill. Set decorator Tatiana Lund. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.

In limited release.

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