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Film - Jonathan Romney on a wholesome but lightweight work of populist cinema

Stephen Daldry's debut feature was screened in Cannes this year under the title Dancer. The name has now been changed to Billy Elliot, so there's no chance of confusing it with Lars von Trier's Cannes hit Dancer in the Dark. Not that you could confuse von Trier's chaotic deconstructionist take on the musical genre with the absolute bang-on brio of Daldry's hoofing routines. However, what the films have in common is using dance as a means of attaining emotional immediacy - in von Trier's case, a sort of melodramatic hysteria; and, in Daldry's, a cosy, uncomplicated sentimentalism that is very English.

Daldry - a former artistic director of London's Royal Court Theatre, and best known for his tricksy, design-heavy production of An Inspector Calls - has made a film that has remarkably little theatrical artifice. Not so much a musical as a realist drama with dance interludes, Billy Elliot pushes our emotional buttons in a way that is entirely mechanical and yet altogether uncynical. Daldry takes the project seriously as an exercise in genuinely populist cinema, which is why it can hardly fail at the box office. The script is by the playwright Lee Hall, the author of the award-winning tear-jerker Spoonface Steinberg, and the story has all the heart-warming potential that is his stock-in-trade. In a County Durham colliery town, 11-year-old Billy (Jamie Bell) bunks off the boxing classes that his wiry old tyrant of a dad (the impressively sour Gary Lewis) sends him to, and learns ballet instead, under the auspices of the abrasive but tender Mrs Wilkinson (who else, but the ever-twinkling Julie Walters?). Ballet school beckons, if only Dad can be shaken in his conviction that dance is strictly a nelly business.

This is a schematic conflict, with a no less schematic outcome - but there's a political angle to make things slightly more complex. The action takes place in 1984, during the miners' strike. Conditions are tough, the police are moving in, and Billy's militant brother knows that this is no time to be prancing around in tights: ballet is surely not only unmanly, but a form of class treason. But Billy has his own needs, even if they are the needs of high art. This dilemma yields one genuinely disturbing scene, when Billy's father sacrifices all for his lad's happiness, and goes against his own political faith. But this seems less a dramatic crisis than an unresolved shock that begs too many questions. Should we read it as a triumph for paternal love, or as art's triumph over contingent world events? Maybe the lesson is only that, while unions and governments may come and go, somewhere there will always be a production of Swan Lake.

Daldry and Hall may have their hearts in the right place, but the film's political content fails to convince. You can't help feeling that the mining conflict is included only to thicken the dramatic soup, and it can be read all too easily as just another layer of period set dressing, on a level with Billy's beloved T Rex songs and a brief glimpse of that Seventies playroom fetish, the Spacehopper. Present-day politics rarely feature in British cinema: but step a couple of decades back, and such themes can be handled as reassuringly as on The Rock'n'Roll Years.

The film's politics of sexual identity also seem half-hearted and confused. This is a very anti-macho film, the miners' hardened masculinity finally making them seem like dinosaurs, fated to be replaced by a sensitive generation of arty lads in tights. Yet the film scrupulously plays down any sexual ambivalence that may be too much for the mainstream, even as it flirts not inconsiderably with camp. After all, Billy dances to Marc Bolan, skips around the streets in shorts and white socks, and has a friend called Michael who likes to wear his mum's lipstick. But Michael's budding gayness seems designed purely to get Billy off the sexual hook.

When Billy's dad is at last won over by his son's display of defiant hoofing, there is a sense that this show of rebellious anger vindicates his son's maleness. Thus the film is cautiously de-queered: the poster could have borne the tag line "Billy Elliot - he's norra poof, mind".

Let's not be churlish. Billy Elliot will bring many viewers a great deal of pleasure. It goes about its business honestly and with unflashy art; and its young star, Jamie Bell, is terrific - he can act, he can hoof like a good 'un, he'll go far. But Billy Elliot is so much a British film of the moment: one that plays down complexity, addresses the heart, rather than the mind, and uses stereotypes just because they are there, even if it does attempt to undermine them just a little. It asks no real questions about the tensions between art (especially art that might be perceived as elitist) and class politics, and finally offers a simplistic solution - you've got to be true to yourself and dance those blues away.

I doubt that a theatre director like Daldry would settle for such dewy-eyed simplicity on stage; but often, when theatre people turn to the supposedly simpler, more innocent realm of cinema, they leave their sharper critical perceptions at home. In Billy Elliot, a very intelligent, accomplished stage director is letting his hair down and opting for Hovis-ad dopiness.

Billy Elliot (15) opens on 29 September

This article first appeared in the 02 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Downing Street