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Saturday, 16 September, 2000, 00:19 GMT 01:19 UK
High hopes for Billy
Billy Elliott
The movie promises to reach a wide audience
By BBC News Online's entertainment correspondent Tom Brook

British movie Billy Elliott has become one of the most praised pictures at the Toronto Film Festival.

This emotional story of a miner's son struggling to become a ballet dancer against his father's wishes is the debut feature from Stephen Daldry.

Daldry, the former director of London's Royal Court Theatre, didn't have a glitzy high profile gala screening in Toronto but his movie won extravagant praise from festivalgoers and journalists.

Jamie Bell in Billy Elliott
The talent of Jamie Bell stands out

They were impressed by its cleverly textured story, its performances and, most of all the exuberant dancing of Jamie Bell, the 14-year-old who plays the title character.

Billy Elliott is set in a northern town during the 1984 miner's strike. It tells the story of a young working class boy who doesn't want to follow his widowed father's instructions that he trains to be a boxer.

Instead Billy, with help from a sharp but kindly ballet teacher played by Julie Walters, secretly embraces dance.

Expression

Although his father has no time for ballet, believing it a ridiculous activity for real men, there is no doubt that dance is what truly inspires young Billy.

Ulitmately it is dance, not words, that enables Billy to communicate with his father.

Julie Walters in Billy Elliott
Walters character has a kind heart

Bell says: "The only way he can express himself and his emotions is through the dancing and he does show his dad how he feels through the dance, when he does dance for his dad eventually."

For Daldry, the screenplay from Lee Hall, touched a nerve.

He sees the film as underlining the value to individuals of a creative outlet like dance.

He says the film is "about breaking out through dance, through art, how important art is in all our lives".

Bell, who comes from Billingham, Cleveland, was cast in the role after an exhaustive search that involved auditioning over 2,000 boys.

He is most definitely the star of the movie, largely because he so skillfully combines dancing with acting. He says it wasn't easy.

"It was a really a new kind of style of dance to me. I was used to sparkling costumes and smiley-face dancing in front of an audience - was acting while you're dancing.

"It was more contemporary and it took very long to shoot. It was very hard for me but the two choreographers and I worked very hard and it looks good," says Bell.

Relevance

Although the dance scenes steal the show, the film is anchored by a strong performance from Julie Walters as Mrs Wilkinson, the ballet teacher who pushes Billy to perform even though his father doesn't approve.

Walters says she identified a lot with Billy's struggle.

Walters and Bell in Billy Elliott
Walters identified with Billy Elliott's struggle

"I come from a working class background and my mother wanted me to be a nurse which I ended up in - but it is not what I wanted.

"Like Billy I had a huge battle and my mother was a very strong woman."

Billy Elliott does lapse into sentimentality, but what gives the film an edge is that Daldry manages to successfully interweave Billy's story in a social context, placing it in the midst of the bitterly divisive miners' strike.

He says: "I think the film is in many ways about different levels and different sorts of grief.

"It's about a child breaking out of a family that is stuck in grief. The male adults are not able to move on from the death of their mother.

"But the community itself is in grief because, during the miners' strike, people understood they were fighting for their livelihood and whole way of life."

With a multi-layered storyline that deals with the miners' strike, personal liberation, artistic pursuit, father-son and teacher-pupil relationships, Billy Elliott holds the promise of reaching a wide audience.

But most of all, this movie is a celebration of dance, and the ability of individuals to transform and express themselves joyously through an art form.

The film will open in the US in October, after its UK release later this month.

If the reception in Toronto is anything to go by then this small British film has all the hallmarks of being a big hit, and one that could well catapult the talented Bell into a much bigger career.

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See also:

07 Sep 00 | Entertainment
Toronto's anniversary high
09 Sep 00 | Entertainment
Almost a winner in Toronto
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