Where “Silver Linings Playbook” succeeded in addressing its subject thoughtfully and truthfully while faithfully adhering to a conventional Hollywood structure, “Billy Elliot”, despite not being a Hollywood film, occupies an uncomfortable space somewhere between an examination of masculinity in a working-class environment and an inspirational fable about following one’s dreams. These two aspects seldom work together, not because they are intrinsically mutually exclusive, but rather because of screenwriter Lee Hall’s steadfast commitment to the plot at the expense of the themes and ideas he raises, not helped by director Stephen Daldry’s relatively safe approach.
The titular character’s plight – an 11 year-old miner’s son discovering a love for ballet – as well as its setting in the 1984 – 1985 strike, offer tremendous potential for a compelling portrait of a boy caught in a difficult time and place. Alas, it is squandered by its stubborn refusal to go any deeper than easily-identifiable, predictable schemes: Billy (Jamie Bell) spends his boxing money on dancing, gets caught by his dad. Billy practices in secret with his tough-as-nails teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), misses an important audition due to his striking brother Tony’s arrest, gets exposed again. Cue a Dark Night Of The Soul, followed by an obligatory return to form and 180 from his dad. Suddenly, all pretense of studying masculinity and class is dropped. All that’s left is the big race for the dream. Billy’s success is a foregone conclusion. Hall and Daldry’s attempts at suspense ring hollow because it is unearned.
Thus the story’s political context gets reduced to a couple of plot contrivances – Tony’s arrest that prevents Billy’s audition, and his father’s breaking of the strike to earn more money for another audition in London. Billy’s relationship with his gay effeminate cross-dressing best friend Michael remains safe and devoid of tension or real unease; Billy never once questions his own sexuality, is never conflicted over his friend’s feelings for him despite having been raised in the same hyper-masculine environment that oppresses him. Because he is contradicting traditional gender stereotypes, the movie assumes, he surely has no issue with his best friend contradicting them even further.
This safe approach is mirrored in Stephen Daldry’s competent but fairly pedestrian direction: Musical training montages, shots that only illustrate what the script says without trying to extrapolate any possible hidden feeling… The only sequence where Daldry truly uses the cinematic medium and combines it with dancing as a means to express and understand Billy’s feelings is a truly astonishing sequence in which Billy vents out his anger after a heated row between his father and Mrs. Wilkinson. With a wider variety of camera angles and shot lengths, held together by dynamic editing and the Jam’s Town Called Malice, Daldry takes a break from merely telling the audience what Billy is feeling and instead chooses to actually express it.
The only other notable instance of Daldry going off the beaten track is Tony’s arrest. Set to the tune of the Clash’s London Calling, the scene depicts Tony being pursued through a series of houses by an army of riot police. Things are made even more bizarrely comical by the variety of obstacles Tony runs through and the slight speeding up of the police’s movements, giving the chase a slapstick tone reminiscent of old silent Keystone Kops shorts. This lightly satirical touch is as close as Daldry comes to making his historical setting really matter.
“Billy Elliot” could have been a thought-provoking exploration of how gender and class stereotypes conflate and affect the protagonist’s perception of himself and the environment he grows up in. Instead, it ends up being yet another “Rocky”-inspired success story minus the authenticity. For a more successful and similarly crowd-pleasing story of a character transcending gender and class prejudices for self-expression – as well as a greater purpose, audiences should instead turn to Peter Cattaneo’s “The Full Monty”.