First Impressions: Billy Elliot (2000)

Charlotte O'Sullivan
Friday 21 November 2008 01:00

It's 1984 – the miners' strike is on – and Billy (Jamie Bell), 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 and his weekly boxing class is adding insult to injury.

Then one day Billy stumbles across ballet. As it turns out, he's a natural, and dancing teacher Mrs Wilkinson (Julie Walters) wants him to try for a place at the Royal Ballet School. But how can he think about auditions when his family are getting ever more deeply involved in the strike?

Despite, or perhaps because of, all the hype surrounding theatre man Stephen Daldry's directing debut, it would be easy to take against Billy Elliot. Lee Hall's script gropes for heart-strings from the word go, while the soundtrack is one of those ubiquitously jaunty affairs (T Rex, The Jam) that editors hope will cover over all dramatic cracks.

Thank goodness, then, that its final message is a little more complicated and the strike scenes hair-raising for all the right reasons. None of this would count for anything without the right cast. As it happens, they're near perfect. Bell has enough energy to set a wind-mill spinning, while Walters makes us believe in a character so droll she can't take her own loneliness seriously. Gary Lewis, meanwhile, avoids all the dignity-under-pressure clichés as Billy's father.

Determinedly mainstream, Billy Elliot doesn't push you anywhere you don't want to go. A strike, poverty, sexual awakening, joy... This is Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher with the i's dotted and t's crossed. In other words, it's as raw a slice of escapism as you could wish for.

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