Message Of Despair
This film which has received not a few plaudits, tells the story of Billy
Elliot, a 12 year old boy who discovers a talent for ballet by accident.
He has now to struggle for acceptance especially against his father. All
this takes place against the back drop of the miners Great strike of 1984-5
and the attendant hardship that it brings to his mining family. The strike
does have a role in the story and is clearly not a side issue. The film
develops a symbiosis between the struggle of the miners, described by
Margaret Thatcher as "the enemies within" and the struggle by
Billy against his family, who view him in a similar manner. The constraints
placed on Billy by his social position are constantly emphasised. However
by contrast to the miners, whose attempts to struggle against the constraints
of the system are depicted as essentially doomed, Billy is presented with
a way out.
The fortunes of the miners and Billy seem to develop in diametrically
opposite directions. Billys finest moment his acceptance by the
Royal Academy is announced by his father at the miners social club just
as the return to work is declared.
The cause of the miners is not treated sympathetically. There is no real
exploration of the issues involved, and their struggle is cast in a negative
light in comparison to the actions of Billy. Who is held up a source of
inspiration amid the chaos.
The miners are actually portrayed as little better than an ugly mob in
contrast to Billys gracefulness. In one sequence scenes of miners
attempting to stop scab labour are interlaced with those of Billy practicing
ballet steps. It is clear how we are meant to judge them both. The collective
expression of the class is defined as negative in opposition to the self-expression
of Billy. Indeed the notion of collectivity is depicted as crushing the
individual. Billy is under constant pressure to conform to expected norms
by his father who in turn is subject to similar pressure on picket lines.
At no time does the strike come across as a potentially liberating experience.
Rather it appears as the source of all ills, and this is ultimately crowned
by the despair and misery of the return to work. The dilemma of Billys
father-whether to stick it out or become a scab-is not really explored
at all. It simply happens and then is resolved in a way which is slightly
unbelievable. The issue is reduced to little more than a family concern,
as Billys elder brother intervenes to prevent the father scabbing.
It would be wrong to assume that there is any implicitly pro- working
class message in this film. While the privations of working class life
are shown the blame is laid at the feet of those who experience it because
of their own lack of vision. But the cultural horizons of the workers
are limited by their existence under capitalism as a slave class, and
the film offers no hope that these can be raised. The only solution for
Billy is to abandon his class.
In a sense the message is one of despair. The only one who has any hopes
is Billy. His father troops back down the pits, while Billy buses off
to a bright future.
It is perhaps interesting that there are no working class women to be
seen. While the presence of Billys dead mother is clearly felt throughout
, the only other female character of note is distinctly middle class.
Almost all of the male characters overtly display characteristics that
are associated with traditional masculinity. Indeed the negative portrayal
of the miners strike is fundamentally linked to masculinity. Billys
homosexual friend is one of the few characters portrayed in a more positive
light. But the audience is encouraged to laugh at his antics- a device
intended to engender sympathy.
In this way the film maintains his isolation in the eyes of the audience.
Ironically the working class father who holds so many prejudices is treated
in a similar way. We are meant to be amused, watching someone who has
never left County Durham blundering through the streets of London. The
working class elements are portrayed as backward and prejudiced, which
of course leaves the enlightened bourgeoisie free to champion
the causes of racial and sexual equality. This film actually emphasises
the need to bring these issues under the hegemony of the working class.
It demonstrates that the ideology of political correctness
is in fact a lynch pin of bourgeois hegemony; the working class is portrayed
as being incapable of championing the oppressed, let alone leading the
universal struggle against capitalism.
Overall Billy Elliot is a film well worth seeing-though it is best to
do so with open eyes.
Reprinted from Weekly Worker Nov. 23 rd 2000.
We have reprinted this review from Weekly Worker, although we
have not yet seen the film ourselves. The wee excerpt we have seen seemed
to suffer from a lack of authentic accents, and had that horrible stage
school north of somewhere voice which they wheel out to portray
everyone from Lancs to Geordies. We would welcome other peoples
views of the film and might even get to see it ourselves.