Mix Ken Loach with Fred Astaire and what do you get? A heartwarming, toe-tapping delight, judging from Stephen Daldry's joyous working-class fairytale.
Like Sam Mendes and Nicholas Hytner, Daldry is another one of those annoyingly talented British theatre directors who seem just as happy behind a camera. Though not as visually audacious as his celebrated stage productions, Daldry's feature debut reveals a rare talent for extracting unforced performances, particularly from the younger cast members.
At first glance, Billy Elliot appears to hail from the same school of breadline miserabilisms as My Name Is Joe and Brassed Off. Daldry, however, has other ideas, splicing this dour tale of striking miners with dream sequences and exuberant solo dance routines.
Kes was obviously a big influence on Daldry: Billy shares a bedroom with his thuggish older brother and keeps his passion a secret from his family, who think he's taking boxing lessons. Halfway through, though, the movie shifts into a more conventionally feelgood mode, with a whole host of conflicts - personal, political and sexual - being neatly resolved on the eve of Billy's make-or-break audition for the Royal Ballet School.
The grittiness of the first half sits uneasily beside such unabashed sentimentality, and although Daldry takes pains to show Billy's as straight as the day is long, the film still feels like a coded gay parable preaching a faintly simplistic plea for tolerance.
Yet all this pales beside the sheer gut-busting pleasure to be had from watching Billy strut his stuff to glam-rock tracks like Children Of The Revolution and New Wave tunes such as A Town Called Malice. Along the way, Daldry elicits a star-making turn from 14-year-old newcomer Jamie Bell, while giving seasoned scene-stealer Julie Walters room to shine.
Its title may have changed since Cannes (where it triumphed under the name Dancer), but Billy Elliot is still a major coup for director Stephen Daldry and his excellent cast. Leave your cynicism at the door and you'll have a ball.
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