November 16, 2000

Dancing King

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In the opening scene of Billy Elliot, visions of a boy jumping in midair against a green and yellow psychedelic background provokes in the viewer an extremely surreal emotion. But this emotion quickly dissipates as the plot unfolds and the iconographic themes of the movie develop.

Set in a northern England mining town in 1984, this movie features Billy Elliot, an eleven- -year-old boy, played by Jamie Bell, who transcends the gender divide. While his father and brother are involved in a bitter miners’ strike, Billy finds that he harbors an unusual love for ballet, rather than a predisposition for the fundamentally masculine sport of boxing.

Secretly attending girls’ ballet lessons, Billy’s talent is recognized by Mrs. Wilkinson, the ballet mistress played by Julie Walters. When she furthers his potential by providing him with private lessons and encourages him to audition for the Royal Ballet School in London, Billy is forced to disclose his talent to his family.

With the memory of a mother long passed and a grandmother who is not mentally coherent, Billy is raised in a male-biased household with a sharp line dividing the two genders. So when Billy divulges his passion for ballet, the movie becomes anything but surreal. It becomes a venue for social expression.

Directed by Stephen Daldry, this English drama highlights the importance of self-expression and portrays polemic views towards its universality. A movie of growth, desire, and emotion, it asks the viewer to ponder his or her own perspectives about males in stereotypical female positions (i.e. ballet dancing), the connotations of alternative sexual preferences (embodied in Billy’s best friend who is a crossdresser, and the consequences of a family’s control of a child’s social development.

Perhaps my own love for ballet and my emotional sappiness contribute to my enthusiastic appraisal of this movie; still, I believe that anyone can be inspired by the spirit of this boy and his ability to just be himself in the midst of a socially and economically suppressing culture.

While some English humor is interspersed throughout the movie, the merit of Billy Elliot resides in the superb acting, the authentic portrayal of the English setting, and the innovative crossing of gender boundaries. Although the difficulty of a male immersing himself in a predominantly feminine role is less commonly depicted than a female aspiring to a masculine standard, this somewhat surreal experience is entirely realistic. With his success, Billy Elliot traverses the conventional stereotypes of his surroundings and becomes an iconographic image of gender equanimity that is decidedly not surreal.

Archived article by Barbara Seigel