Billy Elliott (2000)
Set in England, widower Jackie Elliot and his firstborn, fellow miner Tony, take a dim view of 11 year-old second son Billy’s poor record in boxing class, which worsens when they discover he sneakily transferred to the neighboring, otherwise girls-only-attended ballet class. This is a story about a talented young boy who becomes torn between his unexpected love of dance and the disintegration of his family.
Genres: Comedy | Drama | Music
Motion Picture Rating (MPAA): Rated PG-13 for some thematic material
Country: UK | France
Release Date: September 29, 2000 (Ireland)
Production Co: Arts Council of England, BBC Films, Studio Canal
Runtime: 110 min
Faith Review of Billy Elliot by Kathy Sharp
Theology and Film Spring 2012
Film Title: Billy Elliot
Director: Stephen Daldry. Daldry is a British film director who came to film after many years of directing in the theater. Billy Elliot was his first film; his most recent film is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Original release form/venue: Originally released in theaters first in the UK and then internationally including the US
Current Availability and formats: DVD, Blu-Ray, VHS, Amazon instant, Netflix instant play
Genre: Dramatic Comedy
Story elements: The story opens in northeastern England near the Durham Coal Fields during the miners’ strike of 1984. Billy, an obviously energetic boy of 11 is playing his brother’s LP and jumping on the bed along to the music. Still dancing, he makes breakfast for himself and his grandmother who has disappeared. We are introduced to several themes in this first scene as he runs off to kindly and gently guide his grandmother back to the house. His grandmother is aged and has some dementia and Billy is good with her. But in the background, there is the unmistakable presence of armored care and heavily armed police showing us that all is not well in the community, there is the LP scraping and his brother Tony screaming at him telling us that all is not well in Billy’s family, and there is the curious little blond girl standing against the wall in the street quietly watching and seeing everything. Billy goes to school, cares for his grandmother, and takes boxing lessons. His father and Tony are striking miners who spend their day picketing the mine and trying to eke out a living on their union strikers’ allowance. His mother has died. While at boxing practice, Billy becomes enthralled with the ballet class being held at the other end of the gym. Eventually, he joins the ballet class. When his family objects, he takes lessons secretly with Mrs. Wilkinson who sees a special gift for dance in Billy and encourages him to try out for the Royal Ballet. After a great deal of struggle, Billy’s poor, struggling, and broken family eventually comes together around Billy’s dream of becoming a ballet dancer.
Film Language elements: The music and the dance movements are the most important elements of this film. These two elements work together off the setting to enable Billy to express his emotions, frustrations, and fears to the viewer. The film opens to T-Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer” and shows Billy’s love of movement, of feeling free, almost of being able to fly, and we glimpse his inner spirit. During an angry conflict between Mrs. Wilkinson, Dad, and Tony, Billy runs from the house in anger and frustration to the sound of The Jam’s “Town Called Malice,” and angry tune during which Billy dances through the streets, in a tiny courtyard, in a wash closet, bouncing off and climbing brick walls and finally hitting a dead end into a metal barrier. The viewer senses his frustration at the adults’ fighting and misunderstanding and failure to understand him. The film continues to use popular and classical music along with an original score to develop this healing coming of age story.
Audience/Cultural Context elements: This film is intended for a teen through adult audience. There is some violence and profane language that would make it inappropriate for younger children, though some may find the story itself intriguing.
Theological themes for conversation: The theology is implicit in Billy Elliot, there are no explicit theological themes in the film. However, the film gives us plenty of themes to work with to begin a theological conversation, including personal identity, acceptance, family relationships, grief, redemption, and grace to address the human condition, relationship in community, and intercultural relations. Billy is at a critical age in personal identity where he is beginning to think of himself as a dancer. It is clear in the film that he knows this might be a problem for his family, but he resolves to follow his heart anyway. It is not easy – he struggles against his family, his teacher, and himself as his loyalties are stressed and seemingly impossible choices are put before him. But we can see throughout the film that Billy was meant to dance – his every movement leans toward a dance from fixing toast in the morning to boxing in the ring to working with the punching bag to walking home from school. He has a true gift, one could say that God created him to dance, and his struggle is to be true to that gift and to his loved ones at the same time.
Billy’s family has long been grieving the loss of his mother. His father has been unable to connect with his sons on a healthy emotional level and he is clueless as to how to deal with Billy’s dancing. At first, he denies it and denies Billy the opportunity to pursue dance. Tony sees it as unacceptable as well, but Tony has his own problems with Dad related to the miners’ strike. Tony takes a more active role in the strike, getting himself arrested, while Dad is struggling with unemployment and poverty. No one really considers anything the grandmother says. They all want and need each others’ love and acceptance but don’t know how to foster it.
Within the community, the family has an image to keep up. The neighbors would not tolerate a son being a ballet dancer, the Dad can’t bring himself to become a scab for the sake of his son’s dream, and how are they supposed to interact from within this poor mining community with a middle class dance teacher, much less with the artistic elite at the ballet school. Love and determination get them through even that and some grace is shown as the dance judges in London wish Mr. Elliot good luck with the strike. Once the family comes to terms with Billy’s dream, the mining community comes together in their support of Billy. The quite observant little girl on the street finally speaks at the end and wishes Billy well. Billy shows grace to his family as he struggles against them while at the same time loving and needing them. And they show grace to him by coming together in the end to open up to one another, to work together, and to express their love in a healthier way. The family is redeemed and even Tony expresses his affection for Billy at the end. Not all goes perfectly, the miners’ strike is unsuccessful, and Billy has to choose to be separated from his family, but the dance from Swan Lake at the end demonstrates the liberation and grace of faithful living considering individual gifts within family and community.
Recommended ways to view and engage the film: This film is best viewed in its entirety and then discussed. The music is a critical part of the film and a fun way to engage the film would be to select several of the songs, play those songs or show the clips in which the songs are played and talk about how the song selections fit into the story in light of the identified theological themes. Why do you think that particular song was chosen? Did it enhance the story at that moment? Did it affect the way we experienced the scene? Why or why not? For example The opening song “Cosmic Dancer” is about someone who has been dancing since he was a child, like Billy, and describes how that makes him feel – like he danced right out of the womb, like a bird flying. “Children of the Revolution” by T-Rex is the fourth song of the film and comes at the time when Tony becomes an activist in the strike and Billy begins to pursue his dream of going to ballet school against his father’s will. “A Town Called Malice” is played as it seems that the whole community is against Billy. An angry sounded song, it shows Billy’s frustration and anger. “I Love to Boogie” reveals Billy’s dancing abilities, his expression and his energy, and how his freedom and liberation must come through dance. The final scene as Billy leaps out onto the stage in Swan Lake show the culmination of Billy’s work and that of his family and the result of the grace and redemption offered to them as a family.
Questions for Theological Conversation
I. “Each of you has been blessed with one of God’s many wonderful gifts to be used in the service of others. So use your gift well. If you have the gift of speaking, preach God’s message. If you have the gift of helping others, do it with the strength that God supplies. Everything should be done in a way that will bring honor to God because of Jesus Christ, who is glorious and powerful forever.” 1 Peter 4.10-11
1. Obviously, Billy has a gift for dancing. Can we identify other gifts that Billy has? What are they? How are they important to the story?
2. What gifts do we see in the other characters? What role do they play in the story?
3. How are these gifts used in the film to serve others? To serve God?
4. In this film, do any of these gifts bring honor to God? If so, how? If not, why not? How could these gifts be used to bring glory and honor to God?
II. “Unless someone like you cares a whole, awful lot. Things aren’t going to get better, they’re NOT!” Dr. Seuss, The Lorax
1. What things in this film need to get better? Why?
2. How can these things improve?
3. What/Who do the characters care about?
4. Does anything get better? What? Why? Who was responsible? How?
“Let … individuals make the most of what God has given them, have their neighbors do the same, and then do all they can to serve each other. There is no use in one man, or one nation, to try to do or be everything. It is a good thing to be dependent on each other for something, it makes us civil and peaceable.” Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)
1. Who is Billy dependent on? How is he dependent on others?
2. Who is dependent on Billy? How?
3. How do these dependencies work within the family? The community?
“It is one of the beautiful compensations of life, that no man can sincerely help another without helping himself.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
1. Who helps Billy in this film?
2. Who does Billy help?
3. How do the ones who help in this film help themselves?