Billy Elliot is huge. You probably won't have realised, but it is. Firstly there's the original film, itself inspired by a 1935 novel (The Stars Look Down) that had already been adapted into a movie and into Italian and British TV versions. This 2000 incarnation of Billy Elliot won a wheelbarrow full of awards and was Oscar-nominated for best Director, Original Screenplay (hmmmm) and Actress in a Supporting Role.
However on top of that, there's also the musical version, which is unstoppable. It was Elton John's idea to adapt it for the stage, apparently. It's been running for five years so far, winning stupid numbers of awards wherever it goes. It's notched up four Laurence Olivier Awards in London, ten Tony Awards and ten Drama Desk Awards in New York and a record-tying seven Helpmann Awards in Australia. It's been performed in other languages, with a South Korean version. This is particularly surprising since it's so specific in its cultural context, being set in County Durham in the north of England in 1984 during the miner's strike and adding things like a huge musical number in which the miners celebrate Margaret Thatcher's birthday because that's pushed her one year nearer to her death. They didn't dilute that down at all when going to America and other countries, by the way. They just played it as is, although obviously every stage production will go through subtle evolution wherever you go.
The stage version's a good show. It's faithful to the movie, although I have a feeling that it has a slightly different way of being funny, and when I saw it it had that energy and confidence that speaks of a show on a roll. It's been brave enough not to duck the apparently uncommercial elements of the story and it's been rewarded with massive commercial success. It'll probably still be around decades from now.
The film was massive in Japan, by the way, where they call it Little Dancer. It's also probably my wife's favourite movie. Not bad for something that I dare say most British people think of as just another little Britflick.
The story is straightforward, but manages to avoid that sense of being slightly underwritten that makes something like The Full Monty feel lightweight. Billy Elliot is an eleven-year-old Northern lad whose mother is dead and whose father and brother are miners on the picket line. Like them, he's inarticulate and not averse to using his fists. His dad sends him to do boxing, but one day he finds himself having to hang around the ballet club. He likes it. He starts dancing himself. You can work out the rest.
The key word for the film, I think, is "inarticulate". No one's good at expressing themselves, not even Julie Walters's middle-class ballet teacher. She's a rude, chippy lady whose idea of high praise is to slap you down with criticism and then shortly afterwards give you a wink. Billy's father's emotional journey is arguably just as important to the story as his son's, as he drags himself up from his neanderthal attitudes without seeming to have ever had to think two thoughts before in his life. For these people, words are direct, blunt and only a rough approximation to what you're feeling. It's their non-verbal communication that's telling you everything... and Billy may be awkward with words, but he certainly knows how to pour his feelings into his dancing. It's about self-expression as much as anything else.
The acting is expressing that. Gary Lewis is magnificent as an inflexible, largely unthinking man who's simply not accustomed to forcing his brain into new patterns. He's not stupid. It's just the way he is. Jamie Bell as Billy burns up the screen when he's dancing and entirely embodies his character. In some of his early scenes I wasn't impressed, feeling he was missing a lot of non-verbal subtleties in this very non-verbal movie, but later on I lost that sense and I'd probably need to rewatch the film to decide whether or not if that's deliberate character development. He's certainly rock solid on dialogue. Incidentally Jamie Bell had in real life taken ballet and other dance classes and of course been teased for it at school, which was something he drew on for the film. These days of course he's a well-known actor, acting in films like Flags of our Fathers
and currently playing Tintin for Steven Spielberg.
However my favourite non-verbal performance, oddly enough, was Stuart Wells, a child actor who'd never acted before and yet says so much with his face and manner as a young homosexual. This isn't a sexual story, but Billy's fancied by both a boy and a girl and the two of them provide some of the film's best laughs. "If you want, I'll show you my fanny." However Billy himself is basically asexual, being eleven, and of course the film's very aware of the stereotype of "ballet dancer = poof".
Then there's Julie Walters. I know some people don't like her, but personally I've never really understood why. After all, she's not just Victoria Wood and Harry Potter movies. She's done things like Boys from the Blackstuff, while this is her second Oscar nomination after Educating Rita in 1983. It's a brusque, hard-faced performance that's deliberately avoiding quirkiness, instead being very nearly as inarticulate as everyone else.
There's quite a lot of understated feeling here. The material with Billy's late mother is delicate and moving. The miner's strike is being portrayed forcefully, with vignettes like Billy's dad being forced to smash up the family piano for firewood and Billy's brother being chased by riot police. (That's a creepy habit they have of beating their batons against their shields.) However for Billy and his friends, all that's just background. The most striking shot in the film is the one in which a girl is running a stick along a wall and doesn't seem to care or notice when the bricks turn into riot shields.
You'll love the film's certification, though. UK and Ireland 15, Canada PG, France U, Netherlands 6, Germany 6, Sweden 7... USA R-rated (theatrical). Apparently they didn't like the language. They're a rough-mouthed lot in the North of England, unlike all those dainty Americans who've never sworn in their lives and don't even know what bad words sound like. Lawks.
Overall, it's really good. It's still basically entertainment, of course. It's honest about its setting and class struggles, but it's no Ken Loach film and you'll be disappointed if you go in expecting one. It's the story of a boy becoming a ballet dancer. It won't change your life, but it's really rather well made, sometimes funny and saying a lot about the hearts and minds of people who aren't accustomed to putting that kind of thing into words. The stage show has done worldwide blockbuster business than the movie by being impressively faithful to it, even in story areas where you wouldn't have expected that. Both of them have laughs, strong use of music and some surprisingly touching moments.
"There's no mines in London." "Christ, is that all you think about?"