The next film I want to consider breaks slightly with the chronological sequence, yet Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliot contains so many echoes of Kes that it really needs to be read alongside it. Like Loach’s film, it is about a young boy who seeks to escape from the constraints of his poor, working-class upbringing – in this case, in order to develop a talent for dance. Like his namesake, Billy Elliot has a missing parent (in this case, his mother), and is routinely belittled by an older brother. Both Billies reject the traditionally masculine activities (football, boxing) they are encouraged to pursue, as well as the potential future that is laid out for them in working down the coal mine. Instead, both find a passion that they struggle to develop in secret. Some scenes seem like direct echoes, especially the sequences where the boys steal a book in order to learn more about their new-found interest; and there is a key moment in both films where each of them is able to articulate in a more public setting how it feels to engage in their passion.
Nevertheless, the outcomes of their two stories are very different: unlike Billy Casper, Billy Elliot is supported by a charismatic teacher, and eventually by his family and local community; and where Kes ends in tragedy, Billy Elliot ends in triumph. They are also very different kinds of films: Kes is a naturalistic drama, produced by a small UK independent company, while Billy Elliot is a high-budget entertainment, produced by Universal Studios and clearly targeted at a large global audience. Where Kes initially struggled to achieve widespread distribution, Billy Elliot gained Oscar nominations and BAFTA awards, and has made over $100 million at the box office. As I intend to show, the politics of these two films are also quite different – even if both of them ultimately focus on an individualistic form of escape.
Released in 2000, Billy Elliot is set against the backdrop of the miners’ strike in the north of England in the mid-1980s. Billy lives in a small mining village near Durham with his widowed father, Jackie, and older brother, Tony, who are both coal miners out on strike; and also his maternal grandmother, who has dementia, and once aspired to be a professional dancer. Billy’s father sends him to the gym to learn boxing, but Billy dislikes the sport. By chance, he finds and eventually joins a ballet class that is using the gym. He tries to keep this secret from his father, concerned that he will be seen as a ‘poof’; but when Jackie finds out, he forbids Billy from attending. However, Billy secretly continues lessons with his dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson.
Mrs. Wilkinson believes Billy is talented enough to study at the Royal Ballet School in London, but due to Tony’s arrest during a fight between police and striking miners, Billy misses the audition. When she tells Jackie and Tony about this, they are outraged at the prospect of Billy becoming a professional ballet dancer – not least because they think he will be considered to be gay. Meanwhile, Billy has a friend, Michael, who is gradually revealed to be gay, although Billy’s own sexuality remains somewhat ambiguous.
Later, Jackie catches Billy dancing in the gym and realises that his son is truly talented; he resolves to do whatever it takes to help Billy attain his dream. Mrs. Wilkinson tries to persuade Jackie to let her pay for the audition, but he refuses. He attempts to cross the picket line and return to work in order to pay for the trip to London, but eventually his fellow miners and the local community raise the money, while Jackie pawns Billy’s mother’s jewellery. At the audition, Billy is very nervous, and punches another boy in frustration, fearing that he has not performed well enough. He is sternly rebuked by the examiners, but when asked what it feels like when he is dancing, he describes it as being ‘like a fire in my body… I fly like a bird… it’s like electricity’. Seemingly rejected, Billy returns home with his father; but some time later, the Royal Ballet School sends him a letter telling him he has been accepted, and he leaves home to attend. In the final scenes, fourteen years later, Billy takes the stage at Covent Garden to perform the Swan in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, as Jackie, Tony and Michael watch from the audience.
Like Billy Casper, Billy Elliot is clearly identified, not just as poor and working class, but also as oppressed: he is the main carer for his grandmother, he is bullied and verbally abused by his brother, and he lives in fear of his father’s vicious anger. Although he is less obviously a misfit, this Billy also fails at traditional masculine sports. His true passions and talents are vilified and misunderstood. Billy has lost his mother, and throughout the film her presence is invoked both directly and indirectly. Thus, in one scene, she appears as a vision, upbraiding Billy for drinking milk out of the bottle rather than using a glass; while Billy’s love of music is implicitly linked to his mother, and when Jackie smashes up the family piano to use as firewood at Christmas, it’s as though her memory is being destroyed (‘do you think she’ll mind?’ Billy asks). We are encouraged to pity Billy; and the film rarely forgoes opportunities to pull at the viewer’s heart-strings.
Throughout the film, Billy’s father and brother are frequently seen on the picket line, and in pitched battles with the police. The heavy police presence in the village is constantly made apparent: police (sometimes in riot gear) appear in the background whenever Billy is shown walking through the village, although this is rarely remarked upon. On one level, it’s obvious where the film is seeking to direct our sympathies. Tony in particular is a victim of police brutality, although he is not entirely innocent: at one point, he sets out to sabotage the strike-breakers’ vehicle, although his father prevents him. Tom, Mrs. Wilkinson’s husband, is highly critical of the strike, yet he is clearly presented as an unsympathetic, unattractive character (an alcoholic and an unfaithful husband). Even so, the motivations for the strike remain unexplained, and it isn’t clear whether we are expected to see it as justified.
Nevertheless, the miners’ strike is more than simply a backdrop to the story of Billy’s discovery of his creative talents. In fact, there are striking parallels – reinforced by the editing – between the two narratives. Thus, Billy’s father goes back to work as a strike-breaker explicitly in order to ‘give the boy a chance’ and earn some money for him to attend the audition; as he announces to his fellow workers that Billy has been accepted by the Royal Ballet School, they inform him that the strike has collapsed; and the shots of Billy leaving for London are inter-cut with shots of the miners being shut in the cage and descending into the pit as they return to work. The gradual defeat of the miners’ strike is also a defeat of traditional masculinity. Jackie and Tony are seen confronting a strike-breaker in the conventionally female location of the supermarket; and Jackie is mocked on his return to work with the words ‘who’s a big man now?’
As Billy’s individual escape attempt succeeds, so the struggles of organised labour are defeated: Billy’s rise is the miners’ fall. It is as if the film’s two narrative arcs are inversely related to each other. The individualistic story of salvation through art seems positively to require, not just escape, but the negation of collective social movements. Thus, when Billy and his father travel to London, we learn that Jackie has never been to the capital city; and when Billy is asked by another boy at the audition about Durham cathedral (near where he lives), it emerges that he has never been there. The working class child can only succeed if he escapes from his origins; and in the process, those origins must be defined as merely a constraint.
Like falconry for Billy Casper, dance is Billy Elliot’s means of escape; and some of the most remarkable dance sequences in the film show him chafing against the frustrations imposed by the small mining village – in one scene, literally crashing into a corrugated iron barricade across the street. Billy is clearly marked from the outset as a ‘natural’ dancer: even when he tries to carry on the masculine family tradition of boxing, he is effectively dancing in the ring. He has to overcome the homophobic prejudices of his father and his older brother, and their resistance to the ‘middle-class’ Mrs. Wilkinson, who recognises Billy’s potential. Yet Billy’s father and brother gradually learn to set aside their prejudices as the story proceeds – and thereby win the viewer’s sympathy. The community likewise rallies round Billy, in an almost magical reversal (there appears to be no resentment of Billy’s aspirations, despite the deprivation the striking miners are enduring).
As I have argued elsewhere, Billy Elliot’s view of salvation through creativity makes it in many respects a paradigmatic New Labour movie. It reflects the view of culture as a means of overcoming ‘social exclusion’ (a euphemism for poverty) that was strongly propounded in government policy at the time, especially by the Culture Minister, Chris Smith. As in much of New Labour policy, class struggle is seen as an irrelevant relic of the past: inequality, it seems, will somehow disappear in the magic fairy dust of culture and creativity. The music that plays over the final credits begins with a sickly power ballad sung by the former Boyzone star Stephen Gately: ‘you can choose what to be’, the lyrics run, and if you believe, ‘nothing can stand in your way’. It is not the anthem ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ that was played through Tony Blair’s victory celebrations in 1997, but it might as well have been.
Many critics have found a more progressive dimension in the film’s treatment of sexuality. The traditionally masculine miners Jackie and Tony – and seemingly, the rest of the community – gradually overcome their homophobic prejudices, in a manner reminiscent of the more recent feel-good movie Pride (2014), in which miners and gay activists unite during the strike. Yet in other respects, the message seems more ambivalent. The film constantly insists that male dancers are not necessarily gay, not least by referring to (presumably) heterosexual dancers such as Wayne Sleep, Gene Kelly and (in one clip that must have cost the producers a fortune to acquire) Fred Astaire. Billy’s friend Michael eventually comes out to him, but only after Billy has discovered that he is a cross-dresser. Is transvestitism somehow considered a tell-tale (or even necessary) characteristic of being gay, one wonders. Meanwhile, Billy’s own sexuality remains ambiguous. He refuses the advances of Mrs. Wilkinson’s daughter Debbie, and he kisses Michael on the cheek as he leaves the village, but he does not seem to have desires of his own. When he punches another boy at the audition who tries to comfort him, he accuses him of being a ‘bent bastard’. Even his final appearance as the lead dancer in Bourne’s defiantly gender-bending Swan Lake does not resolve matters: the camera lingers on his muscular torso, but is this implying that gay people can be physically powerful (and not ‘sissies’, as his father suggests), or something else?
Billy’s rejection of homophobic stereotypes is undoubtedly encouraged by his teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson (brilliantly played by Julie Walters). Yet she too is an ambiguous character. In a recent article, Ahmet Atay has argued that Mrs. Wilkinson is an embodiment of ‘feminist’ or ‘queer pedagogy’, along with Miss Jean Brodie (in Muriel Spark’s novel and the 1969 film, directed by Ronald Neame). Yet I see no evidence for this. Mrs. Wilkinson’s teaching style is in fact highly traditional and disciplinarian, and her aim is to gain Billy entry to the most rigidly formal kind of dance education. She constantly corrects Billy and challenges him to do better, although she also makes it clear that this authoritarian persona is somewhat of an act. To be sure, she supports Billy outside the classroom, in an unsentimental way that is characteristic of ‘hero teacher’ characters more generally (Mr. Farthing in Kes does the same, although he is less obviously a hero). At the outset, Mrs. Wilkinson appears to be cynical and bored with her teaching (she is constantly smoking), and she only displays enthusiasm when presented with a potential star pupil: this isn’t exactly an egalitarian, feminist approach, especially as it entails ignoring the girls in the class (‘can’t we have a go, miss?’ one of them asks). Her motivation is explained by her daughter Debbie as a result of sexual frustration: Debbie tells Billy that her parents no longer have sex after her father had an affair, and that her mother is ‘unfulfilled’, which is why she is so interested in teaching dance. Again, it’s hard to see how this can be seen as ‘feminist’, let alone ‘queer’.
This might appear unduly cynical, but it isn’t entirely unfair to describe Billy Elliot as a kind of fairytale – an argument convincingly advanced by Judith Lancioni. Like Cinderella, Billy has an absent mother, a neglectful father and an evil step-sibling (although both of the latter are eventually transformed). He is born to dance, and through the intervention of a chain-smoking fairy godmother, along with hard work and determination on his part, he eventually achieves the fairytale happy ending. ‘Instead of boxing gloves or a glass slipper,’ Lancioni writes, ‘he dons ballet shoes, and in doing so he transforms not only himself, but his family’s and his community’s concept of masculinity as well’. As Lancioni argues, Billy Elliot is no fairytale; but seeing it in these terms does allow one to realize how it elides realism and myth, and how it holds out hope in the face of disillusionment. The extent to which this addresses the difficulty and complexity of the political issues at stake is certainly debatable; but hope (and even sentimentality) can, in certain circumstances, serve as an important motivation for political action.