Last one before film festival films. This is actually the first time I’ve sat down and watched Billy Elliot in one viewing. For all of its predictability, the movie’s really fun. Borderline cheese at times, but always heartfelt.
It’s funny how old screenwriting adages almost always hold true. Billy Elliot is a great case-in-point: introduce a sympathetic character (Billy. Sympathetic because he’s young, misses his mother, is different, and has a difficult life), give him a goal (to dance), give him an obstacle (his father, finances), and watch him go. This film is textbook-structured. Like recent Tom McCarthy films, I can pinpoint the exact moment where we segue acts, where the climax begins and ends, etc. If this is manipulation – that is, if I’m being strung along by a series of predetermined settings – then manipulate me. Of course, you still need to be a good writer to make these strategies work. Billy Elliot is funny. It’s filled with good dialogue. And it’s pretty unique. Still, though you can see the outcome from a country mile, its screenplay-guideline-format makes it hum right along.
I try to talk about things in this blog that aren’t in standard reviews (in part because the overwhelming majority of reviews ignore everything except writing and acting), and one of those elements here is the cinematography. DP Brian Tufano (Danny Boyle’s DP up until A Life Less Ordinary…I wonder what happened), lenses the film in order to bring out the strikingly colorful production design, itself in stark contrast with the striking miners who background the picture. One of the more interesting things he does is try to subtly enhance a fantasy/reality structure that is separate from the dance numbers. For example:
Billy (Jamie Bell) has decided that he’ll take secret, private dance lessons from Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters). The lessons are to be held in the boxing gym, which Billy has been attending at his father’s insistence. Director Stephen Daldry starts on Billy in the locker room getting ready. The shots here are about preparation. In the same way we might watch the obsessive detective clean his gun or study mug-shots, here we see Billy lacing his dancing shoes. It’s the cut out to the gym that I’m more interested in. Billy walks through the doors and there’s a cut to his POV, moving forward.
His POV is a wide-shot. The gym is dark, with only blue daylight streaming in from the windows high up on the walls. Mrs. Wilkinson is leaning against the balance beam. She’s in silhouette. There’s a beam of light shining directly on her and it’s hazed – meaning there are particles of dust visible in the air. The smoke from her cigarette spirals up creating an ethereal ring at the top of her head.
There are the obvious angelic/savior connotations here, but the cinematography does more than that and than push the drama of the moment. It visually separates this shot from the rest of the film to this point, pointing towards how fantastical it is. It plays like the opening to a dream sequence precisely because it is a dream sequence – it’s Billy’s dream come to life and Daldry and Tufano recognize that. This is a shot that could be pulled from a film noir, Raging Bull or a Terry Gilliam film just as much as a whimsical, nostalgic, optimistic musical.