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Review by Joshua Gibbs
Only in the final act of the film does anyone ask Billy Elliot about his dancing. Until he stands before the admissions board for the Royal Ballet School, he is either told to dance or told not to dance. When finally someone asks him, “What does it feel like to dance?” Billy unfolds a rather Pentecostal explanation of his work. “Don't know. Sorta feels good. Sorta stiff and that, but once I get going... then I like, forget everything. And... sorta disappear. Sorta disappear. Like I feel a change in my whole body. And I've got this fire in my body. I'm just there. Flyin' like a bird.”
The film opens with this fire, this disappearance, and then leaves it behind for more than an hour before returning to it slowly. As the opening credits roll, Billy loads a copy of T Rex’s Electric Warrior onto his brother’s turntable and, in slow motion, leaps up and down on his bed serenely to the cool sound of “Cosmic Dancer.” Billy appears in and out of the frame, rising and falling, each time with a different expression or pose. Only children forget themselves so easily. Only angels, as per Dostoyevsky.
Set in a small English town in the 80s, recent widower Jackie Elliot raises his two boys on the meager allowance afforded a coal man whose union has been on strike for several years. Dad is brusque, bitter and doesn’t believe beauty has anything to offer masculinity. Older brother Tony works in the mines, and possesses a feudal sense of loyalty to the work of his father. And then twelve year old Billy gives up boxing to dance the ballet. Little in the plot could not be readily imagined from such premises. At times, I was hard pressed to believe the characters we’re conceived prior to the author imagining “a feel good drama,” and then filling in the appropriate Mad Lib script cues (“Hey, dear, what’s a non-traditional male sport/art?”).
Billy sticks around after boxing practice one afternoon and looks on a ballet lesson at the other end of the gymnasium. Half an hour later, he’s absently trying a few moves at the behest of ballet mistress Sandra, a faux-leopard collared chain smoker with a heart of gold. Next week, he tries a little harder, and the week after even more so, although director Stephen Daldry (knighted four years after the film’s release) commits little time to openly exploring Billy’s interest, or how he fell so far from the tree. Not much of Billy is printed text, his character emerges in marginalia and suggestion. Eventually, Billy quits boxing and lies to his father about where he’s going, and when Dad finds out he blows a fuse and says he didn’t raise a “poof.” Mining is manly work, but ballet is for girls and perverts.
Clues to Billy’s interest in ballet skirt the main narrative of the film. As Tony takes after his father, Billy takes after his mother. Billy sometimes retreats to the family piano, which no one beside himself plays, and plinks a few notes while deep in thought. Surely the piano was purchased for someone with skill enough to put it to use— the Elliots are not wealthy enough to have the thing around as mere decoration. Billy piously visits his mother’s grave, trims the overgrown grass by hand, and helplessly scrubs graffiti off her tombstone with the cuff of his sleeve. When beset by doubt in his ability, Billy takes solace in a letter his mother wrote for him to read after she died. The ghost of the woman appears once, in the kitchen at night, to kindly remind Billy not to drink his milk straight from the bottle. Finding his father an unfit relic of his mother, Billy takes up the task himself.
Daldry grants little personality to Dad in the first act of the film, so it’s not hard to see why the father has failed to capture the imagination of his younger son, because Billy often seems like someone else’s child altogether. The miner’s strike has been dragging on for years, and the men of the town have little to do every day but march down to the picket line and scream at the scabs being bused in with a police escort. At times, the whole town seems on the verge of collapse (I was reminded of Harlan County, USA), and it is against such a backdrop that Billy gives himself up to dance.
While most viewers will immediately side with Billy, the character is flat compared to that of his father by the time the third act begins. As with sports movies, Billy has a few boilerplate successes and failures. In return for his piety, Daldry goes easy on Billy. His father chides him for his dancing, and yet Billy is hardly a martyr; no one else in town thinks it strange that Billy dances, and he suffers no mockery at school. The grand act of self-effacement at the center of the film comes from the father, who finally transcends the pettiness of his overly-prized dignity and walks to Canossa to beseech the help of Sandra to get Billy an audition at the Royal Ballet School. Money is needed for the audition, and so Jackie goes early to meet the scabs and rides the bus in to work at the mines while looking out now at the screaming mob whose ranks he formerly numbered in. When Tony recognizes his father on the bus, he chases the old man down, and Jackie confesses his sadness and his hope that Billy will escape the miserable town. As is typical of such sacrifice, Billy is absent from the scene and probably never recognizes the humility of his father; as far as Billy knows, his father simply changes his mind. While a child rarely senses the loss a parent suffers, physically or spiritually, I feel some filmmaker owes it to the world to explore such a moment— after the fatted calf has been eaten, the party over, the prodigal son comes to terms with how much the father has wept. Someone should linger on that moment of bewilderment, grief and thanks. Modern filmmakers are too quick to gloss over it.
“What does it feel like to dance?” The question is worth returning to, given that most of the Billy Elliots of the world do not, as does our hero, get accepted at the Royal Ballet School. The film is set in the fictional town of Everington in 1984. Everington likely references the actual town of Easington, where a coal mine employed most residents until 1993 when it shut down and the town failed. Billy is fortunate to not have been born a decade later, when he would have likely had to content himself with dancing ecstatically on his bed to “Electric Slider,” not as a professional of the London Stage. “I… forget everything. And... sorta disappear.” In Lost in the Cosmos, Walker Percy’s riotous parody of self-help books (even while it purports to be “the last self-help book you’ll ever need”), Percy suggests that the great boon of art to the artist is the loss of “the self.” A “self” is not a whole person, but an avatar of the whole person created by the whole person. A man can never fully get outside himself, and so no man can know himself fully, and so, Percy suggests, we create images of our whole persons and it is these images we speak of when we say “me” or “I.” A man is ever thinking of his “self,” even while his self is never the entire man, but a frail representation of the entire man. Paradoxically, it is only when I have ceased to think of my “self” that I can live fully in giving my life away; when I cease to think of “me” doing a thing, I can give my whole person over to that thing. If I can forget my “self,” if I can “sorta disappear,” then I can be real and full. In Glory, all men will enjoy the fullness of their being because their whole person will be centered on God. The “self” melts away and is replaced by a complete human being. For now, though, art offers a taste of heaven in calling the artist to leave behind self and self-image.
At times Billy seems a passive character, or dreamy, or lost, but if the film is read front to back, from the bouncing on the bed to his apologia as the film closes, we instead see a character who is yielding to something beyond himself, and beyond rational comprehension. He is yielding to beauty.