Billy Elliot is Stephen Daldry’s 2000 film about a boy becoming a ballet dancer, and gaining acclaim for its promotion of individual identity, its challenge to restrictive gender norms and its celebration of artistic pursuits. The themes of the film may be more commonplace and well known in todays world, but in the context of the film’s creation they were cutting edge and, to some, provocative.
The key to Billy Elliot is understanding how challenging ideas about the human experience – new perspectives and arguments about how we should live our lives – are delivered in sympathetic and even comedic ways.
This study guide is structured as follows:
- The Rubric
- Close analysis of textual devices
You should always pay close attention to the rubric for any module, and this is no different. You can access the syllabus description here. Note how the syllabus emphasises an analysis of the emotions attached to human experiences, the paradoxes of human behaviour and the role of storytelling. Furthermore, your response must always consider how language and form (so in this case, the ‘language’ of cinema) is used to convey these notions or to manipulate the audience’s experience of the text.
With respect to Billy Elliot, you will need to examine the various experiences that each of the characters face, and how these speak to broader human experiences that the audience can connect with. Often these experiences have to do with change – many of the characters are in important periods of transition in their life – but experiences of consistency or even inertia are also relevant. Consider the experiences of the miners, who spend the entire film rioting – in both foreground and background – yet who ultimately gain nothing. Relationships between emotional experiences, political conflicts, artistic expression and even experiences of the human body itself can be discussed. Themes of the film are discussed in greater detail below, but you should remember to link them back to these rubric-centred ideas.
The film is set during the 1984-85 coal miner’s strike in Britain. The 80’s are widely recognised as a controversial and important period of British (and global) history. Britain was experiencing a dramatic shift in political, social and economic policy towards the ‘neoliberal’ framework engineered by Margaret Thatcher and her US contemporary, Ronald Reagan. Crises such as the Falklands war – a brief but intense conflict between Britain and Argentina over British islands – allowed the British government to use a ‘crisis mandate’ to impose strict and fundamental changes to the economic fabric of society. Corporations and private interests were given greater freedoms, often at the expense of workers and the middle class.
As a result of these reforms – seen by the political elite as ‘necessary’ for growth, but seen by the working classes as a cruel depravation of social safety nets – divisions between classes grew. The miner’s strike came about as a response to fears that the Conservative Party policies would decimate the already-dwindling mining industry. Members of the NUM – the National Union of Miners – conducted massive and widespread strikes, often resulting in violent clashes with police. These clashes are frequently demonstrated in the film, and they symbolise a broader conflict between democratic or populist wills and technocratic or authoritative forces.
Other forms of authority were being challenged at the time as well, including the authority of social norms and roles. Feminist movements were focusing on the role that gender plays in society, and how certain gendered norms – such as what men and women should wear, do or pursue – were restrictive to many people. LGBTIQ communities, though heavily discriminated against at the time, were gaining more visibility and were forming organised resistance. This resistance to traditional notions of gender or sexuality is not just seen in Billy – it is expressed through his best friend Michael as well.
CLOSE ANALYSIS OF THE TEXT
The first shot of the film is of a record – an obvious choice given the musical connotations – but it also situates us in a specific time, right after the subtitle introduces the date. It also sets up the subjective experience of the film, something very important to note (it is discussed further in the sound techniques section).
Our first real vision is of Billy, floating, jumping in and out of frame. Slow motion combined with tightly framed shots provides the audience with a dreamy, surreal aesthetic. Note the walls behind Billy are exaggerated in scale – not representative of a real space but rather how Billy ‘feels’ in that particular moment.
Also note the colour symbolism of yellow is emphasised. This is important to note because of its contrast to other sequences in the film where the town appears colourless and drab – such as in the coal mines.
When Billy finds his grandma in the field and escorts her away, we see the riot police in the background. This compositional juxtaposition serves to indicate one of the key tensions in the film, between Billy’s creative spirit and his oppressive, socio-politically wrought context.
You can also see the abundant use of natural lighting within the home – leaving much of the setting dim and sometimes hard to see. This is continued throughout much of the film
Note: Natural lighting has become more widely used in recent years as film technology has developed and artificial lights have become somewhat less necessary, but there are some earlier independent film movements and historical cinematic eras which were characterised by a similar style. For instance, Italian Neorealist films – a cinematic movement which often focused on depicting stories of working class, ordinary people in post-war Italy – often had a similar emphasis on naturalistic, unfabricated lighting.
When Billy first arrives for his boxing session, note the foreshadowing and juxtaposition employed when Daldry shows us the ballerinas – and the piano.
Billy’s discomfort during the boxing sessions is made apparent through several techniques, but visually the most apparent is the POV (point of view) shot of him being punched in the face. This is another example of a visual technique placing the audience in a subjective relationship to the character – we feel and see what Billy does, strengthening our connection to him.
And if being punched in the face is meant to disempower Billy, then the opposite soon occurs: a dolly shot (a shot where the camera moves closer or further from the subject) is used by Daldry to show Billy’s steady empowerment through dance. His relative scale increases, and this subtle effect hints at what’s to come.
A dolly shot can also be used to create surprising or comedic images. For instance, when Billy first joins the dance class, a dolly shot pulls back through rows of dancer’s feet, mostly girls dressed in ballet attire. It is only when Billy’s legs come into the foreground, identifiable by his lack of ballet stockings and his shoes, that the audience realises he has taken up Mrs Wilkinson’s offer.
Notice also the visual contrast between legs (dancing) and arms (boxing). Billy’s legs are emphasised throughout the film, but particularly when he first joins the ballet class. Daldry chooses to use frequent close ups of the dancers’ legs, connoting grace and self-control, which stands out against the flailing and aggressive arms of the boxing students.
Later, when Billy is speaking to Debbie, strike posters framed in the background loom over the characters, much in the same way that the strike itself looms over the events of the film. These posters reappear throughout the film, usually in the background as well.
Not all of the lighting in the film is entirely naturalistic. In keeping with the subjective experience of the film, Daldry sometimes exaggerates spaces through light – such as when Billy arrives to the gym for his first one-on-one lesson with Mrs Wilkinson. High contrast, volumetric lighting (volumetric refers to how the light appears ‘solid’ because of its interaction with smoke/particles in the air) is used to emphasise how daunting, and perhaps frightening, this new transition in Billy’s life is.
Later, when Mrs Wilkinson takes Billy out for a drive to the lake, heavy industrial machinery in the background is juxtaposed against a serene, natural environment – which Daldry demonstrates through extreme wide shots and careful framing. These wide shots are not simply for the sake of aesthetic – they underscore the important tension between industry, capitalism and beauty that reoccurs throughout the film. Police officers staged in the background also reinforce the notion of authority imposing on Billy’s identity.
Note also that the scene takes place at the setting of a lake. This has important connotations because Billy’s performance at the end of the film is Swan Lake. Drawing parallels between Billy and the swan may be a useful way to explore how Daldry draws on the archetypal story and recontextualises it to connect with modern audiences.
When Mrs Wilkinson confronts Billy’s family, and Billy resorts to dancing angrily to vent his emotions, the claustrophobic, brick-walled setting serves as another reminder of the various social norms and authorities that constrict Billy. This time however he fights back, eventually running free from the compound. This is short lived however, as another wall blocks Billy at the end of the street, suggesting a final barrier to his goal.
Visual techniques are also used to show us glimpses of Billy’s father’s transition, as he learns to accept and support his son. When Billy’s father is looking to sell the jewellery, and goes to a store to do so, Daldry uses framing and composition to suggest his internal conflict. The mining strike donation is specifically placed next to the jewellery store, and he has to choose which ‘side’ to align with.
Furthermore, when he travels with his son to the ballet school, his disorientation and alienation is made clear through the spiralling (combination of pan and tilt), low angle shots of the building – it’s clean white surfaces and curvaceous geometry is quite unlike anything seen in the film’s setting up until this point. He is clearly uncomfortable, as demonstrated by shots of him lingering outside the audition room.
These elegant and clean spaces are starkly juxtaposed against the grubby and blackened coal fields, suggesting a large tension in the broader world between different classes.
Consider when, upon returning to their hometown, Billy’s father returns to the coalmines. The framing of the elevator gate in the foreground, the staging of all the miners packed together and the low-key, desaturated lighting suggests that – while Billy has experienced a transition into a brighter and more positive future – his family remains trapped and under broader authority.
Other parallels between Billy and the mining community can be seen. For example, the motif of the bus – which recurs mostly in the context of the strikes, but which also transports Billy to his new life in the ballet school. The shot of Billy’s brother communicating with Billy through the window of the bus parallels many shots in the film where Billy’s brother hurls abuse or throws rocks at the miners’ bus windows – except this time, the moment is tender and caring. Daldry suggests that the same object – or the same idea or experience – can have vastly different meanings depending on one’s personal and social context.
Editing and Sound Techniques
Music and editing are combined and used to reinforce the subjective experience of the film throughout. Daldry does not portray music as objective or separate from Billy’s human experiences – it is tied deeply to his character.
The first sound the audience hears is Cosmic Dancer by T-Rex, and the lyrics ‘I danced myself right out the womb’ carry obvious connotations regarding Billy’s character. Importantly, the music only starts when Billy positions the record – suggesting that it is diegetic and that we will experience the film from Billy’s eyes (and ears).
Other instances continue this trend. For instance, smash cuts – which is when a scene very abruptly and suddenly cuts to a new location or context – are used in conjunction with sudden transitions in sound mixing to suggest that we can only hear the music when Billy can hear it. For example, when his brother rips Billy’s headphones off, the abrupt muting of the music achieves this effect.
Later on, when Billy dances and runs home, his steps are in time with the music. Here, Daldry uses blocking (the movements and actions of characters within space) in combination with the editing and music to convey how Billy imagines the music in his head. Later, when Billy is exasperated and bashes his arms to the beat of ‘hard’ rock music, his internal frustration is made external in the sound.
The use of montage and juxtaposition also demonstrates the various oxymorons that exist in Billy’s life, and the paradoxes of his experiences. For instance, as he trains to dance, Daldry simultaneously displays shots of Billy in his bathroom at home, attempting to recreate and perfect the various ballet poses. Match cuts are used to link shots of Billy performing a move with almost-identical shots of him performing the moves in his house. However, with the change in setting, the contrast between the clean, spacious dance spaces and Billy’s cramped, grubby bathroom reinforces the constant tensions of socioeconomic class that surround him.
What about the hallucination that Billy experiences, of his mother? We know it’s a hallucination because of the deliberate lack of continuity in the editing. She appears seemingly from nowhere – in one shot she isn’t there, and in the next she is. As such, the subjective experience of the film is reinforced – we are not merely seeing what is there in the world, we are seeing the world through Billy’s eyes. Thematically, Billy’s mother is another type of authority figure in his life. The film centres on his struggles with various forms of authority – his father, the police, the government and social gender norms. However, his mother’s authority is rendered in the subjective realm, and is thus made more powerful and distinct.
Pay special attention to the setting, props and wardrobe employed in the film.
Clear contrasts are seen between the spacious dance rooms and the cramped, messy home that Billy lives in. Colour contrast is especially clear in these cases.
Note the connotations that the imagery within the setting can convey. For instance, as discussed above, the connotations and presence of the mining strike posters convey the political tension. But even in more intimate spaces – such as in Debbie’s room, where Billy experiences a moment of sexual awakening – the set design employs floral wallpaper and pillow covers to express these sexual overtones.
Note: Flower symbolism in visual arts has a long and varied history, but in Western traditions it has often been associated with fertility, life and sexuality.
More gendered contrasts are seen in two recurring props: the boxing gloves and the feet. These are matched by the visual motifs of feet and fists. The gloves (or fists) evoke the violence attached to many of the male characters in the film, while the shoes (or feet) are often shown in moments of vulnerability or elegance – particularly for Billy.
Props are also used at important moments of tension in the film. Consider when Billy’s piano is being destroyed – the connotations regarding his musical identity are clear, as he feels a certain part of him is being destroyed. This, after all, was foreshadowed in one of the earliest scenes of the film when his father shut the lid of the piano abruptly to keep him from playing.
Consider also the use of wardrobe in the film. The clothes of Billy’s family – his brother and father in particular – are generally oversized, dark and more masculine. Billy, on the other hand, is often dressed in shorts that are freer and more expressive, or – in some cases – in ballet attire.
But perhaps the most prominent example of wardrobe comes through Michael, Billy’s friend, who uses crossdressing in one particular scene as a way of expressing his sexuality. Here, Daldry uses wardrobe to convey the relationship between gender roles and aesthetics (such as fashion), and how the former can arbitrarily restrict the latter.
Various forms of authority exist in the film. For Billy, he feels the authority of his father – and the traditional gender roles that he promotes. There is also the authority of Mrs Wilkinson, which is stern yet nurturing and encouraging, and echoes the presence of his mother. His brother represents a more volatile, masculine type of authority, much like his father, and he acts as a foil character whose contrast to Billy further highlights Billy’s rejection of ‘normal’ masculinity. However, these relationships are not simply matters of domination or rebellion. Rather, they form a ‘push-pull’ dynamic. The ending of the film suggests compromise, rather than absolute victory. For Billy, rather than overcoming his father, he manages simply to convince his father that the dancing is an important aspect of his identity.
As such, there are no real antagonists in the film – at least, not in the form of characters. There may be, as Linda Aronson notes, “mentor-antagonists”, which are characters that stand in the protagonist’s way at certain stages of the story, but who ultimately shape and nurture the protagonist as well. Billy’s brother and father are clear examples here. Why does Daldry do this? Perhaps he wishes to demonstrate both sides of these complex experiences. Rather than focusing on one side and entirely demonising the other, he illustrates the tolls and virtues of these experiences for a wide range of people, providing a greater range of empathy and appealing to a wider base of audience experiences.
There are also broader social authorities, such as the miner’s union, the police and the government. These authorities are less focused on, often demonstrated in brief glimpse, yet their presence is no less important. They drive moments of important tension in the film. For instance, Billy’s father and brother are torn apart by conflicts between their loyalty to the union strike and their need to earn money to support Billy. These authorities are more faceless, perhaps even more sinister (particularly in the case of the government), and as such they may be considered the real antagonistic forces of the film.
Structure vs agency
Another important theme expressed in the film is the relationship between one’s context – i.e. their structure – and their individual consciousness or agency. Many of the characters are seen as products of their environment. For instance, Billy’s father seems to reflect the virility, rage and conventional masculinity that his mining town celebrates in traditions such as boxing and hard labour. Billy’s brother also inherits this, expressing himself through violence, coarse language and spirited rebellion against the police. Another interesting example is also provided however, in a short but important scene of the film. When introduced to Debbie’s father, we learn that he is a staunch conservative who despises the miner’s and any left-leaning political ideology. Though somewhat exaggerated, his outlook seems to be heavily influenced by his status as a middle-class citizen in an otherwise unprosperous region of Britain.
However, Daldry does not suggest that structure controls us indefinitely. Through Billy and Michael, he displays forms of individualism that suggest that our identity comes from a more mysterious and unique source. It is clear that neither Billy nor Michael fit into the ‘structure’ of their time, and at times it seems like the structure may overpower them into submission. Yet it is often when Billy is alone – such as in his escape from the brick-walled compound and during his limping run/dance away from home – that Daldry emphasises his power. Individualism is celebrated as the all-powerful force of our lives, a message reinforced to the audience in the final shot of the film as a grown-up Billy leaps on stage during a production of ‘Swan Lake’.
Daldry also suggests that art plays a liberating role in our lives, allowing us to transcend the boundaries of structure or context. For Mrs Wilkinson, dance and dance instruction allow her to escape the confines of a dissatisfying marriage. For Billy, dance allows him to express his ‘real’ identity irrespective of gender norms or cultural practices, and his description of dance as ‘electricity’ towards the end of the film is fitting. The human experience of creating or performing art is thus rendered as a noble pursuit, one which can allow an individual to achieve greater purpose and meaning in their life.
Gender and sexuality
Billy is ridiculed by his brother and his father, who accuse him of being a homosexual. Though his sexuality remains somewhat ambiguous in the film, Daldry suggests that aversion to an individual’s expression of sexuality stems from powerful cultural forces. Billy’s father reminds him sternly that boxing has run in their family for generations, yet Billy rejects this in favour of a new notion of masculinity – one focused on earnest expression and graceful physicality. This is made all the more remarkable by the fact that Billy has had no feminine role model for most of his life, at least until Mrs Wilkinson takes on the role of a near-adoptive mother. Later in the film, when Billy is in Debbie’s bedroom, he experiences a moment of sexual tension with Debbie but decides to leave. Later, when Debbie offers to perform a sexual act, Billy rejects it in a matter-of-fact tone, suggesting that he does not quite line up to what Debbie expects from boys his age.
Art and sexuality seem to have a strong connection throughout the film, and it is no accident that, per Debbie’s testimony, Mrs Wilkinson uses dance to cope with prolonged sexual frustration in her marriage. They both involve expressions of identity and being through physical bodies, and as such they are both tied up in the complex politics and history of gender and behavioural norms. An overarchingly liberal view of sexuality in the film is epitomised when, before Billy’s departure, Michael briefly kisses him. Billy claims that he is not gay – a somewhat defensive comment, likely influenced by the homophobic environment he lives in – but accepts the gesture nonetheless and seems to maintain a strong bond with his friend. Daldry implies the steady breakdown of rigid traditionalism that occurs between generations, a kind of social awakening that mirror’s Billy’s own awakening to dance. Michael’s appearance at the end of the film, dressed in expressive and non-traditional clothing, and with a male partner sitting beside him, reinforces the notion of continuing and liberating social change. Just as Billy’s rite of passage is complete by that point in the film, so too is his.
When analysing this film for the common module, it is critical that you link all your discussions back to notions of human experience, and to the formal features of the text. Human experiences may be collective, individual or a combination of both. They may include change or consistency. They may have positive or negative implications. They may be political, spiritual, cultural, personal, familial or any combination of such. You may discuss the impact of certain experiences, or the reasons that they occur, or the emotions that are associated with them. As you can see, there is a wide array of ideas you may discuss in your essay – but it is critical that, no matter what you select, you are as specific as possible in your terminology, and as consistent as possible in your argument. With a text as unique, wide-ranging and socially conscious as Billy Elliot, making arguments about the role of art, authority, sexuality, freedom and adolescence in human experiences should be relatively straightforward, provided you pay close attention to what the film’s messages are and how they are delivered.