17 February, 2005

munkey's-eye view: BILLY ELLIOT

HERE BE SPOILERS ~ please don't read on, if you haven't seen Billy Elliot, and don't want the ending given away.


"Just because I like ballet, doesn't mean I'm a poof."

The triumph-over-the-odds-in-a-struggling-mining-community flick has practically become a genre all of its own in British Cinema. But few have made the international splash, and few are remembered as warmly, as 2000's Billy Elliot. Winning multiple BAFTAs & British Independant Film Awards and nominated for three Oscars, this film's charm and genuinely inspiring story won the hearts of critics and audiences alike around the globe.

It is easy to see why - a moving and ultimately upbeat celebration of diversity, the film has plenty going for it. Julie Walters, as always, beautifully combines humour and pathos in her portrayal of bitter-yet-hopeful dance mistress Mrs Wilkinson, but it is new-comer Jamie Bell to whom the film belongs. From the opening frames in which his tentative fingers nervously steal a play with his older brother's record player, to the whole body explosions of anger and isolation which take over when he dances, Bell's performance as Billy is never short of riveting. Meanwhile Lee Hall's screenplay rarely steps beyond the bounds of subtlety, while still milking every laugh, tear and warm-fuzzy feeling possible from his adolescent vs world scenario. And Stephen Daldry's able direction keeps things appropriately kitchen-sink for much of the drama, but knows how to dazzle with snappy cutting and camera work during the dance sequences.

And yet this film contains a thread not found in most other widely-loved films about 12 year old boys: a refreshingly frank yet usually understated consideration of teenage homosexuality. Some zealous queer-readers take an overly-simplistic view of this and interpret the character of Billy as gay. However that is to miss the point, and detract from the film's true message. Billy is most certainly not homosexual himself. In fact - understandably at his tender age - he seems to be asexual: yet to discover attraction to either girls or boys. In the course of the film, he turns down offers of sexualised play from Mrs Wilkinson's daughter Debbie, and from his best friend Michael, both of whom have crushes on him. Billy isn't interested, content to express himself physically in other ways than via sexual experimentation; he just wants to dance.

Michael is gay, and encouraged by his friend's interest in a passtime so codified as effeminate, gently makes his feelings known. From a queer perspective, Billy's reaction is one of the most poingnant and well-realised elements in the film. Far from disgusted, and in no way threatened by Michael's hopes of reciprocity, Billy is affectionate but honest: he doesn't feel the same way. Through Billy's acceptance, the potential awkwardness ultimately brings the boys closer together as they play and tease as boys do, acknowledging but in no way resenting the new-found difference between them.

Cinema far too commonly promotes simplistic and unrealistic images of what it means to be masculine/feminine, what it means to be gay/straight, and what the acceptable ways are of dealing with these suppsedly-conflicting positions. In a world where it often seems the only options are conservative polarisation, or hollow politically-correct-but-meaningless liberal tolerance (I'm looking at you Ms Winfrey), it is refreshing to see a widely-loved film dealing openly with such issues ~ and showing that they really needn't be issues after all.

The film loses marks for an over-inflated and unnecessary epilogue sequence. When Billy leaves his stifling coal-mining background, with a quick kiss on the cheek for Michael on his way to bigger and better things, we the audience know that he will make it. We know that his family will come to love him for his determination and talent, and we know that Michael will find his path to happiness. We don't need to be shown all this, with an adult ballet dancer unconvincingly stepping in as the older Billy. However this criticism aside, Billy Elliot will remain a benchmark and an example: that crowd-pleasing, feel-good cinema can still teach some important lessons about our society, and the needless categorisation and division which it creates.

4 (out of 5)




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