Billy Elliot is now available to rent, buy or stream.
It is hard to believe that Billy Elliot first danced his way into our hearts at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival almost 20 years ago. Billy Elliot remains a sweet, powerful and joyous exploration of masculinity, sexuality, class and community that would give birth to a highly successful West End musical while inspiring a range of later films, from Kinky Boots to Coda and Son of Rambo. Stephen Daldry’s movie began its life in the hands of playwright Lee Hall, under the title ‘Dancer’, as Hall explored his own experiences teaching young dancers at a North East England dancing school. A chance meeting between Hall and fellow theatre writer and director Stephen Daldry would see Billy’s cinematic journey begin as they slowly shaped and moulded the story into a screenplay before presenting it to Working Title and the newly formed BBC Films.
Against the backdrop of the 1980s miner’s strike, Billy Elliot would focus its lens on one community’s struggle to survive during the most extensive social and industrial changes to hit post-war Britain. Communities built on coal found themselves at the forefront of the Conservative Government’s plans to privatise publicly owned industries and reduce coal consumption, resulting in years of Trade Union clashes that divided already vulnerable communities. Billy sits between two worlds: one centred around his older brother and father’s fight for the industry that has kept their community afloat, and the other a younger generation eager for change. This personal and community conflict is only intensified following the loss of Billy’s mother, leaving him in a household where male emotional blocks hinder the grieving process.
The search for Billy began in the North East of England in early 1999, with Daldry and his production team eager to find an unknown boy for the role. Public auditions would lead to over two thousand young boys coming forward, each bringing their unique style to the role of Billy. However, it was 13-year-old Jamie Bell who quickly rose to the top of the pile after months of searching. Bell brought a cheeky boyish charm, tenderness, and vulnerability alongside a love of tap and commercial dance. Alongside Bell, Daldry sought out established actors with extensive experience working with directors like Ken Loach, Willy Russell and Lewis Gilbert. Julie Walters would take the role of Mrs. Wilkinson, a woman trapped in a community where her creative passions were subject to limited cultural ambition. At the same time, Gary Lewis would take the role of Billy’s dad, a key figure in the complex discussions on masculinity at the heart of the movie.
Billy Elliot uses its time and place to explore the labels many working-class boys face. Billy’s journey reflects the complicated interface between class, opportunity, art, and gender through a classic coming-of-age story where dance, creativity and the internal struggle for freedom take centre stage. Some would argue that the barriers Billy faces as he learns to dance are rooted in toxic masculinity and insular community expectations. However, this sweeping statement does not reflect the complexity of the young male experience on-screen. The masculine norms of the mining community sit within a vacuum where opportunities are limited by poverty, as Politicians in Westminster talk of the necessity for social change. These Politicians have no understanding of the communities they seek to transform or the economic impact of their debates and policies, creating a divide between state and community. Billy’s dancing is never viewed as a weakness but more as a frivolity in the face of community destruction, while sexuality and gender identity discussions are also seen as a privilege of the middle and upper classes rather than through a lens of toxic behaviour or rampant homophobia.
“Just because I like ballet doesn’t mean I’m a poof, you know.”
From the outset, Billy chooses to rebel against the concepts of what it means to be a working-class boy in a mining community; he loves to dance and uses it to deal with the grief that surrounds him as he defies social labels. Discussions on sexual orientation are placed into the hands of Billy’s best friend, Michael, a character who has no interest in dance but does enjoy dressing up in his sister’s clothes. Both Billy and Michael defy the labels many would attach to their behaviours and take comfort in each other’s experimentation and defiance. Billy fully accepts his best friend’s sexuality but also feels the need to establish that ‘he isn’t gay’ throughout the film, culminating in a conflict during his audition with a boy who dares to touch him. This is not a conflict built on internalised homophobia, but rather, his fear of the world outside of his community and his working-class identity in an ocean of middle and upper-class kids he perceives look down on him. Many working-class kids will relate to these feelings.
As Billy moves through the film, he seeks to find his identity as a boy who sits outside of the labels society places upon him, his journey one of transformation, defiance and fear. Does he embrace a world outside his working-class roots and alienate himself from his community, or find a way to retain his working-class identity in a middle-class pursuit? Billy knows that he walks a tightrope in making these decisions.
Billy Elliot’s discussions on class consciousness, masculinity, community oppression, sexuality and the divide between Government and community may relate to a critical moment in British history, but they continue to speak to our society today. Since the 1980s, the divide between the poorest and richest has only increased, with opportunity for kids like Billy more restricted now than it was back then, especially in the arts. Many state schools have jettisoned drama, art, dance and music, leaving these subjects in the hands of private schools alongside the jobs and creative opportunities available. Twenty years after its release, Billy Elliot remains an urgent reminder that all kids deserve the right to dance, create and lead social change, and all communities deserve to be understood and valued.