The latest British stage luminary to segue successfully into film, Stephen Daldry makes all the right moves in his delightful debut feature, “Dancer.” Winning story of a preteen lad from a poor mining family who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer strikes a delicate balance of comedy and pathos with an uplifting final act that delivers a resoundingly satisfying emotional payoff. With strong critical backing and the right marketing, Universal could hoist this small but immensely likable picture to considerable commercial heights. U.S. release is scheduled for the fall.
The leap of London’s Royal Court Theater artistic director Daldry into filmmaking may not be quite so distinctive as fellow theater fixture Sam Mendes’ with “American Beauty.” But together with screenwriter Lee Hall, he takes a triumph-over-adversity tale that could have been as blandly formulaic as “Flashdance” and resolutely refuses to travel the most predictable route.
Neither director nor scripter shy away from the story’s sentimental aspects, but even while it milks tears, which it does in no small quantity, the deftly handled drama maintains a sufficiently gritty edge to avoid becoming cloying or saccharine. What makes “Dancer” so refreshing is the warmly compassionate view of its characters, even the most unlikely of which undertake an emotional journey that steers them through conflict and animosity, ultimately to embrace the cause of the pirouetting underdog hero.
Setting is similar to 1997’s “Brassed Off,” which also concerned a northern English mining town, where the impending government closure of pits threatens the community’s livelihood. In that film also, the exhilaration of the performing arts elevates the characters above their depressed reality.
In “Dancer,” however, the focus sits more squarely on an individual family than on an entire town or class, arguably making the film both more widely accessible and more universal in its themes, particularly outside of Britain. And unlike many other films set in similar milieus, this one doesn’t rely on exaggerated Northern stereotypes for easy laughs.
Action takes place in a Durham County town during the 1984 miners’ strike, where angry picketers, vilified strikebreakers and cops in riot gear create a climate of everyday unrest. Among the frontline protesters are Tony (Jamie Driven) and his father (Gary Lewis), who pushes his younger son, 11-year-old Billy (Jamie Bell), to take boxing classes and to wear his grandfather’s gloves with pride. But while Billy has some fancy footwork, his sparring skills are less than spectacular.
Staying behind in the gym one day, he becomes fascinated by the movements of a ballet class taught by chain-smoking Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), whose precocious daughter (Nicola Blackwell) challenges Billy to join in. Mrs. Wilkinson perceives a raw talent for dance in Billy and encourages him to continue. But when his father finds out Billy has hung up his boxing gloves for ballet slippers, he furiously yanks him out of the class, forcing him to stay home and look after his dotty grandmother (Jean Heywood).
Without his family’s knowledge, Mrs. Wilkinson offers Billy free private training to prepare for a local audition for the Royal Ballet School. Billy accepts, confiding only in his best friend Michael (Stuart Wells), whose blossoming homosexuality and Billy’s nonjudgmental acceptance of it represent one of the plot’s many charming incidental pleasures.
Billy makes progress but is forced to miss the audition when brother Tony gets into a scrape with cops. This prompts Mrs. Wilkinson to confront Billy’s father.
At first, the father refuses to budge an inch, determined that his son will not be involved in such an unmanly pursuit. But when Billy rebels and displays his dancing talent for his father for the first time, the embittered widower sees a possible avenue out of their bleak existence for his son and sets out by whatever means are necessary to raise the money to send him to London to audition.
Best known for his roles in Ken Loach’s “My Name Is Joe” and Peter Mullan’s “Orphans,” Lewis masterfully negotiates the father’s turnaround and supplies some of the film’s most affecting high points. His character’s acceptance of his own sorry future, his willingness to go against his principles and cross the picket line to join the scab laborers is quite heartbreaking, reaching a powerful emotional peak when hard-line Tony intervenes to stop him.
Relationships between all the characters are well observed — the father and his sons, the two brothers, and Billy and his grandmother, his friend Michael andjaded Mrs. Wilkinson — all of them yielding sweet, unforced feel-good moments.
Appealing newcomer Bell is natural and sympathetic in his dialogue scenes, sparking vibrantly to life in his spirited, amusingly unconventional dance routines. These start out with “Riverdance”-style toe-tapping before soaring into wild, liberatingly unrefined acrobatics, choreographed by Peter Darling. Presentation of these sequences at times skirts rather uncertainly around the edges of fantasy.
Final scene many years later in London cleverly incorporates Matthew Bourne’s celebrated “Swan Lake,” with that production’s star Adam Cooper standing in for 25-year-old Billy.
Remaining cast is solid, especially an amusing, reasonably restrained turn from caricature-prone Walters, though the foundation for conflict when Billy clashes with Mrs. Wilkinson during his audition preparation seems inadequately laid.
Ably backed by cinematographer Brian Tufano (“Trainspotting,” “Shallow Grave”), Daldry shows a strongly developed visual sense, notably in the eye-catching title seg. The film receives an added charge from a terrific soundtrack of vintage hits by T-Rex, the Clash and the Jam, which predate the period but suitably echo Billy’s rebelliousness and the agitation that grips the town.