Monday, December 29, 2008

Endings Blog-a-thon: Billy Elliot's Completely Sucky Ending

We all know that a fantastic ending to a film can either make a medicore film great (Charlton Heston yelling "Soylent Green is people!" at the end of Soylent Green) or turn a great film into a classic (Gloria Swanson descending the stairs of her decaying Hollywood mansion and into madness in Sunset Boulevard, pictured left). The examples of these are numerous and I'm sure many will be thoroughly covered over at Valley Dreamin's Endings Blog-a-thon. What I'm going to talk about is a great film that is nearly ruined by an ending so shitty that I grumbled to everyone for the next week or so about how much I hated it. The film? Stephen Daldry's Billy Elliot.

I know I was probably the last person on the planet to see this movie a few months ago, so I'm sure that everyone is quite familiar with the central plot: a boy defies his working class background and macho father and brother by enrolling in a ballet class run by a gruff, no bullshit teacher. As with most films about people overcoming class boundaries (and since it is, to a certain extent, an inspirational teacher drama), I was quite taken with Billy Elliot. The film could have been total cheeseball inspiration but, thanks to Daldry and star Jamie Bell, it is anything but that. I was also extremely taken with the unusual relationship between Billy and his little gay friend Michael (which I briefly mentioned here); the part when Billy leaves Michael to head off to school broke my heart. If Billy Elliot had ended here, I would have loved the film a lot more. I was ready to give it an A-, but then that thing Daldry's calls an ending came on and I instantly downgraded it to a B.

First, let me describe the ending in case your memory's a little fuzzy. Billy's father and brother are rushing from the London subway to catch Billy in his big ballet production. They reach it in the nick of time and are settling into their seats when the brother realizes that they're sitting next to Michael (and someone were supposed to assume is his boyfriend?). They talk uncomfortably for a couple of seconds, Michael says something about "not missing this for the world" and then it cuts to backstage with a grown up Billy getting prepared to leap out on stage. And then it ends. Now let's analyze all of the ways this ending bites the big one.


  • Where is Mrs. Wilkinson (Dame Julie Walters)? This is actually my biggest annoyance with this ending. Essentially, Billy Elliot is an inspirational teacher drama and, although I can accept the fact that it's trying to ignore the clichés of the subgenre, but sometimes we need those clichés. They're there for a reason and when we don't get them, we feel cheated. At the end of every inspirational teacher drama, we have to get the scene where the teacher sees that all of her hard work and sacrifice has paid off when the pupil realizes their dream. Without this moment, the rest of the film has basically been for nothing.
  • We don't get the reaction shots from Billy's father, brother and Michael The film completely stops as soon as Billy takes the stage, so that doesn't give anytime to see what the three characters react to how amazing of a dancer Billy has become. Damnit, I just need to see the father tear up or something. Is that too much to ask Stephen Daldry?
  • The inclusion of Michael This choice left me completely puzzled. Why would you include Michael in the scene and not Mrs. Wilkinson? His fond farewell to Billy just a few minutes ago- complete with a touching kiss- was perfect, non? Does he really need to be there at the performance? Anything Daldry is going to show would never live up to this earlier scene and what he does end up showing doesn't work at all. I can see that he's trying to show how Michael has grown up and become who he wanted to be, all thanks to Billy's courage, but it just seems totally unneccessary at this point. In all honesty, who cares about Michael's transformation; we want Billy.
  • The awkward interaction between Billy's family and Michael Seriously, do Billy's father and brother think their going to catch the gay virus by having a simple conversation with Michael? Was it really that shocking to see him dressed up like Boy George and with another man? I mean, Michael was as flaming as a kid could be in a small, working class English village.

What makes this ending all the more horrible is the fact that they had the perfect ending beforehand and completely ruined it. The shots of Billy's family and Mrs. Wilkinson, stuck in their exact same situations with little chance of escaping, juxtaposed with Billy first arriving at the ballet academy, finally escaping his working class surroundings, subtly hit the message home. Add to that Michael and Billy's goodbye and it became absolutely perfect. This "real" ending feels tacked on and makes little sense in the context of the film or the subgenre.

For more wonderful entries on the endings on a multitude of different films, check out the main page of J.D.'s Endings Blog-a-thon over at Valley Dreamin'

16 comments:

J.D. said...

Mrs. Wilkinson was probably dead by then. It was probably 10+ years later, and she was an aging frickin' chain smoker who was mega depressed in her life. It's presumable, at least to me.

Michael may be my favorite part of the whole movie, and him growing up into a happy person was really sort of worth it, the more I think of it.

Sally Belle said...

I agree....Mrs.Wilkinson was dead.

You don't need to see the father's reaction as we have already seen his reactions in anticipation.

It has to end on the leap, the jump. The Billy jump.

I, also, was happy to see Michael and Billy were still friends and happy.

Glenn said...

I basically die every time Billy says goodbye to Michael with the kiss, but I agree the little epilogue doesn't work. For a movie that had its queerness slowly bubbling under the surface (even when being overt about it - make sense?) I think it was really quite odd to see Michael with his black boyfriend. Very bizarre. And... I dunno. If you're going to add this to the end at least show us MORE. Or, if nothing else, Mrs Wilkinson's ghost hovering above. That would be awesome!

Matt said...

Well, I think women like the ending (at least those I was watching it with) because Billy is HOT (apparently)

Dame James Henry said...

J.D. and Sally: I don't buy the argument that Mrs. Wilkinson was dead because Billy's father was roughly the same age and worked in those pits his entire life (which is both dangerous and hard work); if any one was to die, wouldn't it have been him? And if she was dead, why don't we get some acknowledgment of it? Is it too much to ask for a simple line of dialogue or, as Glenn suggested, her ghost hovering over the stage (brilliant idea, by the way).

Glenn: I get what you mean. Part of what made Billy Elliot special (at least for me) was its lightness about the whole homosexuality part. The film talked about it, but didn't hit you over the head with morality or stuff like that. Michael was gay and that's that.

Matt: Jamie Bell is much cuter than that dancer at the end, in my opinion, so I couldn't even enjoy it for that reason (even if that is kinda sick for me to be saying that).

anahita said...

I feel that the reason that it was his father and brother and friend watching was that Daldry wanted it to be personal...although I do agree that she was an inspiration to him, and a friend as well, I think they wanted it to be more realistic by having friends and family, rather than someone who, in the end, taught him years ago for a few months. Also, he already said his goodbyes to Mrs Wilkinson in his own special - and extremely uncommunicative - way, and I suppose they felt that having her come up again would ruin the profoundness of that goodbye. I do agree though, it would have been nice to see the audience's reactions, especially the father's and brother's, because they were the ones who initially opposed it, and then ended up sacrificing a lot to get him where he was...but I s'pose they wanted to end on the iconic image of the leap.

sprry for the giant comment, but this is one of my favourite films with some of my favourite performances

anahita said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dame James Henry said...

Anahita: Two things...
1) Mrs. Wilkinson was the one who spotted Billy's talent and nurtured him to get into that school. In my opinion, she's just as important in Billy's life as his family and Michael. Without her, he would have been stuck in the pits with his father and brother instead of doing what he loved.

2) Billy also had his own special goodbyes with his parents and Michael; why is Mrs. Wilkinson's any different? For me, the combination of her disconnected goodbye and her absence from the ending didn't give me enough emotional closure with her character. I just wanted to see her tear up at the sight of what Billy has become thanks to her, damnit!

Marcy said...

If it ended with the farewell between Billy and Michael, I would've found the ending much too abrupt.

But you're right about the flaws of the epilogue: Where is Mrs. Wilkinson? Everyone else is there. So where's the person who contributed the most to Billy's success? Is it even necessary to show the interaction between Michael and Billy's family? I wanted to see Mrs. Wilkinson and Billy interact for one last time because that is the very crux of the film.

Then again, I love the fact that we get to know for sure that Billy becomes a great ballet dancer. That kind of satisfaction makes the inspirational student/teacher drama genre worth it.

the misomaniac said...

agree with above; as in, exclusion of the "10 years later scheme" would lessen the feel-good-feeling the hollywood films feel they must include. also could result in ambiguity [AMBIGUITY! AMBIGUITY!] since the audience would obviously conclude that billy, like most other young children with artsy dreams, becomes a hippie artist living on the street failing at life. instead of the whole success bit. right.

Paul said...

the lack of Mrs W at the end of the film has been discussed a lot on the "Billy Elliot the Musical" fan forum.

Julie Walters was unfortunately out of the country when that scene had to be shot. It's as simple as that.

J.D. said...

LOL, really? Wow... that's sort of disappointing.

Cheap Billy Elliot Tickets said...

Michael may be my favorite part of the whole movie, and him growing up into a happy person was really sort of worth it, the more I think of it.

Nanette McCrone said...

Dame James Henry I love your status image. It's kind of captain kirk meets tinker tailor soldier spt x

Unknown said...

I hypothesise one reason for michael being in the final scene is to show clearly that time had passed he and therefore billy were now grown up in preparation for what followed.

Don Jordan said...

I just saw Billy Elliott for the first time. Interesting that no-one mentioned that the very final scene was of Billy going on-stage to dance Swan Lake with an all-male company (that of Matthew Bourne). I thought the whole film hung together so well and the ending was all of a piece with what had become before that I was spell-bound. It wasn't until an hour or so after the film had ended did I realise that I hadn't even noticed that Billy was not dancing a male role in a conventional company. I was a bit shocked at myself for being so 'unobservant' but what I 'saw' fitted so well that I don't think it matters. The big question mark that results from this is, I think, did Billy eventually 'come out' as a gay person? Being unanswered makes the ending very, very satisfactory, to my mind.