A Director Calls (1997), Wendy Lesser
(about director Stephen Daldry)
Billy Elliot wraps a stock formula in a nicely observed script by Lee Hall that avoids the obvious cliches, then adds a charismatic young actor in the central role surrounded by skilled supporting players. Stephen Daldry has been primarily a stage director – a few years back he took J.B. Priestly’s 1945 play An Inspector Calls and made it into a riveting, award-winning evening of theatre. Billy Elliot establishes Daldry instantly as equally suited for film. He keeps the potentially soppy sentiment refreshingly dry, finds every bit of gentle, character-based humor, and, with cinematographer Brian Tufano (Trainspotting), discovers stunningly handsome and telling visuals in unexpected places.
The formula has its forebears: Rocky (working class boxer gets a chance at the heavyweight championship), Breaking Away (working class student wins bicycle race), and, most obviously, Flashdance (working class girl with ambitions to be a ballerina). Billy Elliot adds gender-reversal issues to the mix: young Elliot, in a family of macho coal miners, finds his bliss in ballet dancing and aspires to the Royal Ballet School. While his father believes he is at boxing lessons, Billy has discovered a ballet class under the tutelage of crusty, chain-smoking Mrs. Wilkinson (nailed to perfection in the performance of Julie Walters).
Billy’s story plays out against the background of a bitter strike by the miners; Daltry finds dramatic power in the army of police carrying shields, like so many medieval knights, as they move to contain the fury of the strikers. Billy’s father (Gary Lewis, who shone in My Name is Joe) is gruff, still in mourning for his late wife; the father-son relationship is put to the test by Billy’s unconventional, taboo interest.
Further exploration of gender issues is introduced with the character of Billy’s friend,Michael (Stuart Wells), who is gay and likes cross-dressing. Billy’s dotty grandmother (Jean Heywood) adds warm and humorous touches and a poker-faced little girlfriend (Nicola Blackwell), turns a cameo into a star turn.
Daldry has an unerring sense of the theatrical, using tight closeups, unexpected angles, and Fred Astaire clips, as well as choice music for the soundtrack. Lush color and highly contrasted lighting give the film a signature look of its own.
But it is the performance and the dancing of young Jamie Bell that supply the soul of this film and turn it into pure movie magic. Boyish – on the verge of manhood – sensitive, gentle, and open, he is at the same time masculine, energetic, and determined. When he lets go in a number of dance sequences that seem spontaneous (and advance the development of the story), the sheer joy of his jumping, leaping, whirling movement is ineffable, infectious, and incandescent. Bell retains an element of the awkward adolescent with angular elbows that on occasion would make a balletmaster cringe. But it is the uninhibited expression of his passion for dance, "like a fire in my body, like a bird, like electricity," that transcends mere technical ability. It’s not the art of his dance, it’s the heart of his dance that wins audience cheers – and, perhaps, an Oscar nomination.