Billy Elliot

By Stephen Daldry

This story features an unnamed narrator who we presume to be the same as Shooting the Moon, and his companion, Jack Mitchell. This distinctive feature adds weight to the view that the conclusion of Shooting the Moon is more of a pause than an end, and as such reinforces the significance of relaxation to the bush experience – that is, that relaxation and the exchange of stories was something that bushmen enjoyed and prolonged when given the opportunity. 
The significance of rest and relaxation to the bush experience is further conveyed through the narration ‘We had tramped twenty-five miles on a dry stretch on a hot day – swagmen know what that means.’ 

Plot

Billy Elliot lives with his widowed father, Jackie, his older brother, Tony, who also serves as the union delegate, and his maternal grandmother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s and once dreamed of becoming a professional dancer. 

 

From the outset of the text, it is immediately obvious that Billy’s life is marked by hardship and sadness: his mother’s absence has left a gaping wound in the family unit, the pain of which is made only more intense by the financial hardship the family and town is currently experiencing. The film begins at a moment of crisis and strain, which is felt continually throughout. 

Eager to see his son grow up to be masculine, Jackie sends Billy to the gym to learn how to box, but Billy is uninterested in it, and when he sees a ballet class happening at the same time, he determines to join it, unbeknownst to his father. Inevitably, Jackie discovers his son’s betrayal, and forbids him from continuing ballet. But Billy has become drawn to dancing, and his teacher, Sandra Wilkinson, helps him to continue his lessons in secret. 

Sandra, believing that Billy is talented enough to attend the Royal Ballet School in London, organises for him to attend an upcoming audition. But on the day of it, Tony is arrested during a riot, and Billy is forced to miss the audition. Sandra informs Jackie of what happened, urging Jackie to recognise his son’s immense talent and the opportunities it could create for him.

Inevitably however, we see Jackie and Tony respond with bewilderment and express their toxic masculinity and chauvinism as they respond with concerns that pursuing ballet would make people think that Billy is gay. To them, the idea of a boy dancing is insane – boys are supposed to work to provide for their families, but also, it is the expressiveness of dance that they are uncomfortable with; by this point in the film, we have already recognised the contrast between Billy’s emotionality and Jackie and Tony’s stoicism.

While Billy’s capacity to express his emotion lends itself to dance, his father and brother’s stoicism is a product of their upbringing and is moulded by their current context. 

During Christmas, Billy’s best friend, Michael, is revealed to be gay. Billy is supportive of this, but as the audience we understand that this is unfortunately problematic for Billy; his association with Michael will surely only increase his father’s anxieties. However, a short while later while Billy is dancing in the gym with Michael he is discovered by his father. Instead of reprimanding Billy for disobeying him once more though, Jackie instead realises his son’s immense talent, and determines to do whatever is necessary to get his son to the Ballet School. 

 

Sandra attempts to offer Jackie financial support to help him fund Billy’s dream, but he rejects her offer out of pride. Again, we see the frustratingly uncompromising grasp of conservative masculinity and the extent to which it governs the men’s lives, to the point where it makes their lives materially more difficult. Jackie attempts to cross the picket line in order to pay for Billy’s trip to London, but Tony stops him, reminding him of the significance of such an act, and promising that there are different ways to raise the money. Jackie’s fellow miners and members of the town raise money, and Jackie sells his deceased wife’s jewellery to cover the cost. Billy and his father then travel to London for the audition. 

At the audition, Billy performs well despite being extremely nervous. He punches another boy out of frustration, but immediately regrets doing so as he thinks he has ruined his chances. He is indeed rebuked for this act by the review board, and when they ask him what dancing feels like, he struggles to articulate himself until he simply says “like electricity.” Billy returns home, certain that he has failed. 

 

A short while later, a letter from the Royal Ballet School arrives, informing Billy that he has been accepted into the institution. The letter arrives at the same time as the miner’s strike is ending, and Billy leaves home for London. 

 

In 1998, 25-year-old Billy performs as the Swan in Swan Lake as Jackie, Tony and Michael watch from the audience. Jackie’s face is overcome with emotion.

Context and purpose

The events of Billy Elliot take place during the 1984-85 miner’s strike in County Durham, North England. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s economic and social policies were seen as anti-working class, as they led to widespread job loss and social hardship in areas such as where the film is set. The economic and other social pressures facing families are displayed prominently throughout the film.

As a working-class town, Everingham also serves to represent the stereotypes commonly associated with that demographic. Masculinity and chauvinism in particular are explored, along with the different ways in which young people both conformed to, and resisted, those qualities during this time.

In terms of the text’s purpose, Daldry seeks to highlight how meaning and joy can be found amid hardship, and how one’s sense of self is not necessarily defined by their context, but rather the opportunities they find within it. 

Human Experiences Explored

The Pursuit of Creativity as a Means of Achieving Personal Growth; Determination

It is through his pursuit of ballet that Billy is able to achieve personal growth for both himself and his family. This idea unfolds in a highly linear fashion, as we see Billy as initially hesitant and somewhat reserved, before becoming more engaged in ballet, and ultimately embracing it completely. His family largely undergoes a similar process of personal growth, as they move from viewing Billy’s pursuit of ballet as something to be embarrassed by to recognising his immense potential and accepting it.

 

The character’s transformations are encapsulated within the final scene, as the shot of Billy leaping into the air, captured in the light, represents his personal growth, while the close-up of Jackie’s face as he cries similarly reveals just how much he has changed, as he recognises his son’s talent and grieves for the difficulties he placed him under when he was younger.

Gender Expectations; Prejudice and Social Pressures

The prevalence and destructive power of gender expectations are explored thoroughly throughout Billy Elliot, but so too are the ways they can be negotiated and even overcome. At first, Billy’s family are militant and indeed violent in their attempts to indoctrinate Billy into the hyper-masculinity that characterises the town and its broader context – it is symbolic that Jackie urges him to box, itself a violent sport, as a way to secure his masculinity. Similarly, the uncompromising nature of Jackie and Tony’s masculinity is reflected through Jackie’s impassioned dialogue “Lads do football or boxing or wrestling. Not ballet.”

 

Billy’s pursuit of ballet is thus presented as a subversion of gender expectations, and while it would be reasonable to expect him to be exiled from his family given his father and brother’s attitudes, that they actually come to embrace his passion for dance and support it is reflective of how gender expectations can be dismantled, in turn revealing just how reductive and problematic they are.

 

How ballet allows Billy to break free from the pressures of gender expectations is conveyed through the long shot of him dancing through the alley way with the ocean in the background, which represents the scale of opportunity, while the bricked walls of the houses that surround him on both sides symbolise the oppressiveness of the town.

Gender Expectations; Prejudice and Social Pressures

The prevalence and destructive power of gender expectations are explored thoroughly throughout Billy Elliot, but so too are the ways they can be negotiated and even overcome. At first, Billy’s family are militant and indeed violent in their attempts to indoctrinate Billy into the hyper-masculinity that characterises the town and its broader context – it is symbolic that Jackie urges him to box, itself a violent sport, as a way to secure his masculinity. Similarly, the uncompromising nature of Jackie and Tony’s masculinity is reflected through Jackie’s impassioned dialogue “Lads do football or boxing or wrestling. Not ballet.”

 

Billy’s pursuit of ballet is thus presented as a subversion of gender expectations, and while it would be reasonable to expect him to be exiled from his family given his father and brother’s attitudes, that they actually come to embrace his passion for dance and support it is reflective of how gender expectations can be dismantled, in turn revealing just how reductive and problematic they are.

 

How ballet allows Billy to break free from the pressures of gender expectations is conveyed through the long shot of him dancing through the alley way with the ocean in the background, which represents the scale of opportunity, while the bricked walls of the houses that surround him on both sides symbolise the oppressiveness of the town.

Loss; Grief

From the outset of the film, we are aware of the fact that Billy’s life is marked by loss. The notions of loss and grief are explored in two different ways: there is the economic suffering currently afflicting the town, and the loss and grief experienced by the Elliot family following the death of Billy’s mother. The way in which the two overlap is communicated through the wide-angle shot of Billy and his grandmother walking in the field towards his mother’s grave, with the coal factory in the background.

 

Moreover, the close-up shot of the family sitting at the kitchen table serves to emphasise the mother’s absence, and the way in which it bears down upon the family unit, and in doing so is as oppressive as their poverty is. The piano then serves to symbolise the mother’s continuing presence in the house, but it is how the characters interact with it that reveals how they deal with the grief. This sense of loss and grief somewhat fades as the film continues, as Billy’s determination and his family’s eventual support for his dreams come to overshadow any sense of hopelessness. Of course, this process comes to a climax when Billy receives the letter of acceptance just as the miner’s strike is ending.

Belonging

Daldry’s exploration of belonging is closely tied to his examination of gender expectations. That is, it is those gender expectations that shape Billy’s sense of belonging, or lack thereof. As such, Daldry largely approaches the concept of belonging with an emphasis on the struggle that is often required in order to achieve it. An example of Billy’s unease toward boxing and the hyper-masculinity associated with it is when he sees the ballet class going on in the gym, as the blurring effect and close up of Billy’s face suggest how he longs to do something that he is comfortable with, rather than trying to perform masculine traits for his family.

 

As Billy becomes more engaged in dancing, we see his confidence grow, as he is simultaneously empowered to resist his family’s demands and stand up for himself. The Elliot family also struggles with the issue of belonging: though they are an important family within the community, they fear that Billy’s dancing may ruin their reputation. Nonetheless, it is in fact Billy’s dancing that reinstates their sense of belonging, as is ultimately brings the community together, and makes the family tighter. Daldry therefore demonstrates how a sense of belonging is achieved only through struggle, but it is that struggle that makes the sense of belonging worth the cost. 

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