Every critic has their irrational prejudice. For Pauline Kael it was Oliver Stone; for Ebert it’s Rob Schneider; for me it’s British movies. Something about their heir-to-the-kitchen-sink-drama, made-for-TV fustiness grates on me. British movies, to my mind, spell grey-skies and social-issues; I tense at their approach, expecting to be lectured. I’ve tried to like Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Shane Meadows and the rest. But I can’t. I like my sunshine when I go to the cinema. That’s why I put off for so long seeing Billy Elliott. I had no problem with the premise: boy learns ballet, father disapproves. But then I read how the story was set against the backdrop of the coal miners’ strike of the 1980s… The rest was entirely my fault. Here I make amends.
Billy Elliott could have been bad in a lot of ways. The wrong cast could have damaged it. They were lucky to find Jamie Bell. He isn’t cute – but in British movie he was never going to be. What’s surprising is that he’s so likeable, and so confident in himself. He never acts like he’s looking for torment, or desperate to impress. Bell plays Billy as most pre-teen boys are: hardy, loyal and curious about life. His best friend is gay; his ballet teacher’s daughter fancies him; his father is out of work – So what? Billy isn’t fazed by change, he embraces it. Social norms and societal prejudices don’t apply to him because he is authentic as a character. He reacts as Billy Elliott would react, like no other. When he dances, the viewer sees him lit up from within. It’s credit to Jamie Bell that we can know what ballet means to Billy long before he says it.
The movie’s script is a triumph of British-ness. Everyone speaks with their own voice, but they are all united by nationality. No-where else on Earth do people combine public stoicism with such fierce private attachments. If only to understand how British families care for each other, Billy Elliott is marvelous to observe. When Billy first admits his hobby to his father, when he asks his brother if he ever thinks about death, when he goes looking for his grandmother after the starting credits… we see that the Elliott’s love each other. There is no need to express their love in words. Scene after scene, the movie hits on that peculiar facet of British-ness that goes hand-in-hand with British outward reserve – that inner capacity to accept the world’s strangeness. There’s a good reason Britain invented camp and punk and the Monster Raving Looney Party. British people delight in what’s odd. Anyone who’s surprised that Billy isn’t shocked when his best friend outs himself is obviously forgetting which country gave a knighthood to Elton John.
In terms of plot the movie does not offer many surprises. What it does well is to avoid scenes we have seen too many times before. There is no time wasted when Billy discovers ballet. He doesn’t hesitate – he knows it’s not a question of choice for him. Billy’s father doesn’t spend a lot of time lecturing his son either. Even in their angriest confrontation, you can see he cares more for his son than what friends and neighbours will think. The movie has a wonderful maturity in sifting real problems from those which are only surface-real. It’s a lesser movie that would have sought drama from pitting father against son. This is a movie about courage, not defiance.
Most British movies fail (for me) because they don’t believe in happy endings. I’ll admit I’m not a realist, or all that level-headed when it comes to life, but I don’t think there’s much harm in a happy ending – provided that it’s earned. Billy Elliott is a bit of a fairy-tale, but it isn’t a sentimental story, unless you doubt the love between Billy and his dad. Another movie would have focused more on the miners; another movie would have had something bad happen to Billy’s best friend. But Billy Elliott wins me over because it isn’t that movie. It’s British, but not the way I feared.