I don't know about you, but nothing makes me doubt the quality of a film more than the phrase "a heart-warming family drama". Far too many times that ends up meaning that the movie is going to be mawkishly sentimental and have all the emotional depth of a Hallmark greeting card. Rarely has such a movie had much basis in reality or any other redeeming qualities that might compensate for a simplified view of the world that renders everything in pastel shades with all the passion of life squeezed out of it.
For some reason that type of movie or television show seems to thrive on the North American side of the Atlantic Ocean. Over in Britain they do their best to avoid what filmmakers on this side of the ocean do out of habit and laziness. Laziness because instead of bothering to try and make something of quality they merely superimpose a new mask on an old form resulting in characters who are types instead of people, and situations that revolve around a major holiday or family crisis. Of course by the end of the movie all the problems are resolved and everybody sits down to a (insert holiday of choice here) meal that can't be beat.
I can't offer any explanation as to why it's the case — maybe because the Brits don't celebrate Thanksgiving — but the majority of the family dramas filmed over there, at the very least, don't tend to insult the intelligence of their viewers. This was all driven home to me once again through watching the newly released DVD version of the British television movie Ballet Shoes released in North America by Koch Vision.
Based on the novel of the same name by British author Noel Streathed and set in the 1930s, it's the tale of three orphaned girls adopted by an eccentric adventurer/paleontologist named Matthew Brown (Richard Griffiths – Vernon Dursley in various Harry Potter movies) who disappears when they are still infants leaving them to be raised by his great-niece Sylvia (Emilia Fox).
As befits the wards of a man of his profession, one of his last gifts to them before he disappears is to give them the last name of Fossil. After that quick introduction we jump forward in time to when the three, Pauline (Emma Watson – Hermione of Harry Potter fame), Petrova (Yasmin Paige), and Posy (Lucy Boynton), are all in their early teens. Unfortunately the professor's money hasn't lasted as well as they have and things, as the British are wont to say, are a bit desperate. In an effort to help make ends meet, Sylvia takes in boarders and it's through one of them that the three girls obtain places in the Children's Academy of Dancing and Stage Training, run by a refugee from the Russian revolution, Madame Fidolia (Eileen Atikins).
This suits both Pauline and Posy just fine as the former has her eye on the stage and the latter wants only to be a ballet dancer, but for Petrova it's a complete disaster as she'd much rather be an auto mechanic or, best of all, learn to fly. One of things that makes the school so attractive is that it actively seeks employment for its students. No matter how hard Sylvia tries to hide it from the girls, they are perfectly aware of their tight financial straits which makes them all desperate to win roles in performances. Everyone is thrilled when Pauline lands the lead in a production of Alice In Wonderland until it goes to her head and she starts giving herself airs. In a harsh lesson in reality she finds out soon enough that no one is irreplaceable when she pushes it too far one night and is sacked.
Not only is she devastated personally, but she also has to accept the fact that because of her selfishness she has jeopardized her family as well. Throughout the movie there are times when each of the girls, and their "aunt" as well, comes face to face with reality in a way that's not pleasant for them. None of these lessons are particularly nice or heartwarming, nor do they automatically become better people because of them, but what they are is very real.
When Petrova forces herself to take acting roles because she knows they need the money desperately, instead of getting all warm and fuzzy inside because she has learnt about the nobility of sacrifice, she learns its true cost in terms of resentment, tears, and pain. When Pauline suggests that they should audition for another show together, she is shocked by Petrova's violent and tearful reaction, and her vow never to set foot upon the stage again. Her ambition has blinded her to her sister's unhappiness, and it shocks her that she could have been that callous.
Needless to say the acting in the film is exemplary, as everybody from the boarders taken in by Sylvia to the children do a wonderful job in their parts. Nobody strikes a false note, or does anything that upsets the delicate balance the director Sandra Goldbacher has created to prevent the movie from becoming manipulative or mawkish. The only time that the movie deviates from its firm grip on reality is the ending, which wraps everything up in a package with a bow a little too conveniently, but I have to assume that's how the book ended as well so she probably couldn't do too much about it.
I must make special mention of Emma Watson, because in her first role outside of the comfortable confines of Hermione, she makes you completely forget that she was ever anybody else but Pauline. It helps somewhat that they've given her platinum blond hair, but she's taken great pains to make sure that she has created a different character. Being a sucker for the work of Shakespeare I have to admit that she won me over completely when she did a magnificent job with a speech from A Midsummer's Night Dream while auditioning for a role.
One of the special features included with the DVD is an interview with young Ms. Watson where she talks about the experience of working on something different for the first time and how it was her objective to leave Hermione behind. Obviously the people behind the movie are taking full advantage of her name to publicize it, as she is the only one in the cast interviewed and it lasts for twenty minutes, but as she proves herself to be an intelligent and perceptive young person and the movie deserves to be seen, it's not something I'd hold against them. Aside from the interview (actually as no one asks her questions it's more like a monologue on Ms. Watson's part) the special features also include some deleted scenes, an excerpt from the audiobook version of the novel, and as a bonus, a limited edition, 9" X 14" mini poster from the movie.
I doubt that there would be many young boys interested in Ballet Shoes, unless they are old enough to have developed a crush on Emma Watson. However, if you are looking for an intelligent coming of age movie to watch with your daughter, with superlative performances, and a refreshing absence of sentimental ballocks, you won't be disappointed. While British television has been responsible for as much pollution as their American counterparts, this movie shows yet again that when they want to be they can produce shows that are miles ahead of anything we ever do over here.