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Punches and Pirouettes Don't Mix

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 20, 2000


    'Billy Elliot' Jamie Bell trades punches for pirouettes in "Billy Elliot." (Universal Studios)
That adorable Billy Elliot! All he wants to do is dance, dance, dance, but his da and bro have him pegged as a boxer. They see left-right combos, uppercuts, TKOs; he sees pas de deux, plies and fetching pink tights.

So it goes in "Billy Elliot," this week's feel-good injection of glucose from the American motion-picture industry. Or, no, it's not: It's from the British motion picture industry, in profound and shameless imitation of the American motion picture industry.

Are you feeling good yet?

I'm feeling swell! I love it when a plucky lad links up with an embittered former dancer and the two of them sneak into the neighborhood's grimy rec hall and she teaches him the releve, the arabesque and the pas de chat.

The movie is set in a coal town in the 1980s, when Maggie Thatcher was busy breaking the miners' unions, a turn of events that seems to preoccupy the British creative community just as much as the Battle of the Somme did in earlier generations.

Billy, played by a cute 14-year-old kid named Jamie Bell, is gawky and unsure, a hank of hair and a piece of bone, and appears not to like getting conked in the head by the lads he finds himself facing in the ring. He looks across the hall and sees something he likes better: young girls, equally leggy, gawky, awkward, standing at the barre where the burned-out, chain-smoking Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Waters) puts them through the positions with all the enthusiasm of a reporter covering his 5,000th fire.

Billy is instantly transfixed; in time, he contrives to hang around after boxing and join the class. Soon enough, he's ducking pugilism altogether, and the director, Stephen Daldry, gets vivid footage of the boy, in his baggy shorts and undershirt, mixing it up with the little girls straining so hard for perfection. For her part, Mrs. Wilkinson recognizes his talent and, though this is not made explicit, sees in him the possibility of a career that she presumably never had and a fulfillment that has evaded her.

Meanwhile, in the much less pleasant real world, Dad (Gary Lewis III) and big bro Tony (Jamie Draven) are getting brutalized on the lines, and they quite naturally take their fury and frustration home, where the testosterone floats through the small row house like a toxic vapor.

Daldry is perhaps more ambitious than he needs to be, to less than clear success. He tries to combine the kitchen-sink realism of English domestic drama with the more theatricalized tradition of the musical.

Thus the scenes of Billy's home life – the struggle between the more radical Tony and the more practical Dad, and the rage that Dad ultimately directs at Billy – are played for real: unvarnished, raw, bitter, frequently violent. They have the disturbing pain of the authentic.

Meanwhile, a lot of the ballet scenes are romanticized, and the dances that Billy performs feel phony, unreal, unbelievable. This becomes particularly irksome at the movie's climax, in which Billy is trying for a scholarship at the Royal Ballet, which is ridiculously imagined as a kind of 18th-century chateau de la danse, where a board of epicene long-noses snootily examines the rank and file for talent (it's reminiscent of the climax of the far livelier "Flashdance" of many years ago). Billy does a weird thing that owes as much to "Lord of the Dance" as it does to anything from the classical canon.

Daldry doesn't even keep the bounds between the two worlds clear. A big riot scene is staged more like a dance number than a labor confrontation, with rhythmic squads of coppers moving across the field and through the town like Busby Berkeley's troupers. The gritty alley behind Billy's row house, on a Christmas night, takes on the quality of a stage set, with piles of snow and strategically placed holiday lights turning it nearly abstract.

"Billy Elliot" can't contain these contradictions; in the end nothing much remains except the sense of being manipulated. It orders you to love it. It demands love, which is the best way not to get it.

"Billy Elliot" (104 minutes, at the General Cinema at the Mazza Gallerie) is rated R for profanity and violence.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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