Sorry Billy, but It's the Pits and You Can't Dance Either; Film of the Week

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), October 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

Sorry Billy, but It's the Pits and You Can't Dance Either; Film of the Week


Byline: SEBASTIAN FAULKS

Billy Elliot

Director: Stephen Daldry

Starring: Jamie Bell, Julie Walters Certificate: 15 Running time: 1hr 50mins ** (ADEQUATE)

The story of the sensitive lad who doesn't want to go down the pit but dreams of being a poet or a painter is one of the staples of 20th Century English drama. But what begins in original passion ends in affectionate mockery, and by 1970 the genre had been so heavily parodied that in the Monty Python version there was a family of Northern playwrights whose kid wanted to be. .

. a coalminer.

Billy Elliot, Stephen Daldry's film from Lee Hall's script, tackles the story as though it had never been told before. Billy Elliot is a young lad in a Durham mining family who wants not to go down the pit but to become. . . a ballet dancer. In some ways one has to admire the film's wide-eyed approach to a familiar subject, yet the first hour is a compendium of genre cliches so ripe that you begin to look for some sense of self-awareness, some sign that writer or director is going to get a new angle or a new grip on this material. It does not come.

Mum is dead, but has written a letter to young Billy to read when he is grown up. Dad (Gary Lewis) is a Glaswegian on strike, a choking, choleric bundle of stereotypical macho pit attitudes who tells Billy not to be a 'poof'. Gran (Jean Heywood) is daft as a brush and the elder brother Tony (Jamie Draven), also a miner, swears a lot and clips 11-year-old Billy round the ear-hole.

Billy goes to a boxing class, and the implausibility with which he 'happens' to fall into a girls' ballet class in the gym takes the breath away. Again, you look for some sort of acknowledgement that this is a game, a joke, but no. . .

There is only Julie Walters, camply lovable as ever, teaching the girls with her bark-worse-than-bite Northern rigour.

In the opening scene, little Billy burns his fingers as he juggles a boiled egg to and fro in a way you have seen in more opening scenes than you have eaten boiled eggs.

He has a semi-rough, semi-amorous pillow-fight with Julie Walters's daughter in which flying feathers symbolise their unawakened sensuality.

After a standup fight with Tony, Dad turns to see the cowering Billy and says: 'What the **** are you staring at?' Gran struts the industrial skyline and talks of the picture palace where she watched Fred Astaire. Billy and his friend are lagging on a school cross-country run and take a shortcut beneath a bridge to catch up with the others. It is impossible to decide whether the filmmakers have never seen these scenes or heard these lines before or are relying for dramatic impact on the hope that we haven't. …

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