Between the pit and the plie, 'Billy Elliot' is a ballet success

Stephen Daldry joins the A-list of British theatre directors who have transferred their talents successfully to the silver screen
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The Independent Culture

It had its London premiÿre only last night, but it already looks like the British film success story of the year.

It had its London premiÿre only last night, but it already looks like the British film success story of the year.

Billy Elliot, the story of a motherless boy who discovers a flair for ballet in the unlikely environment of the 1984-85 miners' strike, cost only £2.9m to make. More than twice that is being spent promoting it in advance of the American opening next month.

It won the Edinburgh Film Festival audience prize; it received a standing ovation at the Toronto Festival; The Los Angeles Times has said it is a dark horse for next year's Oscars.

And last night's celebrity audience with an eclectic guest list that included Robbie Williams, Alan Rickman, Joan Plowright and the Pet Shop Boys were moved to tears and applause.

As with the case of Sam Mendes and the Oscar-winning American Beauty, once again a theatre director has made the crossover into film and scored with his debut.

This time it is Stephen Daldry, a mercurial figure who has run the Royal Court and directed at the National Theatre, most notably with a radical and commercially lucrative production of JB Priestley's An Inspector Calls. Daldry was given his film directing break by the two founders of Working Title, Eric Fellner and Tim Beavan, the men behind Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill.

The pair wanted to start an offshoot division, Working Title 2, which would concentrate on small-scale British films that their overall backers, Universal in America, might not be interested in.

Daldry and the film he fought and failed to have called Dancer seemed an interesting first project for Working Title 2. Like every ostensibly British film, Billy Elliot boasts its Britishness.

It is backed by BBC Films and National Lottery funds, has a British cast, is directed by Daldry, and has a British editor, John Wilson, cinematographer, Brian Tufano, screenwriter, Lee Hall, and choreographer, Peter Darling. Even the music, by T Rex, the Jam and the Clash is unashamedly British.

But Working Title - though the epitome of British film success and the company that kick-started the film - is actually now financed by Universal, the Hollywood studio.

The predictions of international success have taken all by surprise.

When it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival this spring it reduced audiences to tears, among them the often abrasive film critic of the Daily Mail, Christopher Tookey. He had seen 7,000 films, in his time, he said, but "never wept for as long, not even during Casablanca". He even predicted that 11-year-old Billy would become as big a national phenomenon as JK Rowling's literary creation, Harry Potter.

Stephen Daldry says: "None of us had any idea that we were making a commercial movie."

American pundits are already mentioning the film's 14-year-old star, Jamie Bell, as an Oscar contender. Daldry adds wrily: "Jamie is just amazing. I hope we don't screw him up, turn him into Drew Barrymore or something."

The film is certainly adept at pressing all the right sentimental buttons. It opens in 1984 - the miner's strike has begun - and Billy, a whey-faced stripling from Durham, is still reeling from the death of his mother.

Billy's father and brother, (both on the picket-line) are too wound up for cuddles, his grandmother is going senile and, worst of all, he gets humiliated every week at his boxing classes.

Then one day he stumbles across ballet. As it turns out, he's a natural, and his dancing teacher, Mrs Wilkinson (Julie Walters) wants him to try for a place at the Royal Ballet School.

Lee Hall's script is groping for heart-strings from the word go, while the soundtrack is one of those ubiquitously jaunty affairs that the editor hopes will cover over all dramatic cracks.

But the cast are near perfect. Bell has enough energy to set a windmill spinning, and Walters - unconvincing Durham accent aside - makes us believe in a character so droll she can't take her own loneliness seriously.

Gary Lewis avoids all the dignity-under-pressure clichés as Billy's father. Thanks to him, this man's meaty-shouldered swagger is obnoxious as well as pitiful, his integrity something we can't take for granted. All of which, not surprisingly, makes everything he does on behalf of Billy truly heartbreaking.

Determinedly mainstream, Billy Elliot is Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher with the i's dotted and the t's crossed. Which is to say, it's as raw a slice of escapism as a person could wish for.