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The year is 1984, and Margaret Thatcher is conducting a class war on a scale not seen in Britain for years. A plan to close the majority of Britain's inefficient coal pits sends the industry into meltdown, plunging entire communities into chaos and prompting massive strike action. Fearful of how the trade unions previously brought down Callaghan's Labour government, the Tories used the state's resources to police the picket lines, often with violent and bloody consequences. It's against this backdrop that we find Billy Elliot and his family. Billy is an unassuming thirteen-year-old boy, living in the North-Eastern coal-mining town of Durham with his gran, dad Jackie and brother Tony, Billy and Tony's mother having died the year before.

They have their own battles to fight; Jackie and Tony regularly picket the mine, rallying against the state itself while trying to make ends meet, with Billy struggling to find an outlet of expression for himself. He's no good at boxing, even though he has family tradition to uphold, but it's at such a boxing lesson that Billy finds something worth fighting for. Billy finds himself inexplicably drawn to a ballet class being taught in the same hall, and it's not because of the girls in their tutus! The ballet teacher, the stern Mrs. Wilkinson, immediately picks up on Billy's talent, and much to the chagrin of Billy's family and puzzlement of his friends, he responds to her tutelage and begins to find his feet, so to speak. Mrs Wilkinson lines up a shot for Billy at the Royal Ballet School in London, and Jackie joins his son on his trip, adamant that Billy's chance for a better life does not pass him by, despite his initial resentment of Billy's choice. You can probably guess the rest...

So, there's the plot. But is the film deserving of the commercial and critical success that greeted its release? The answer is a resounding yes. First-time director Stephen Daldry (better know for his stage work at that point, a journey that has come full circle with Billy Elliot: The Musical) assembled a memorable cast, able to bring to life the struggles and triumphs of Lee Hall's bitter-sweet script. Daldry does not allow the film to be bogged down in the miners' doomed battle, eschewing didactic political material for more human representations of their struggle, such as the abrasive treatment meted out to a fellow worker who's crossed the picket line (I don't even recall a mention of Scargill or Thatcher). Yet even if one is not aware of the political ins and outs of this period in history, the fear and frustration felt by Billy's father Jackie (Gary Lewis in a fierce turn) and brother Tony (Jamie Draven) is palpable enough to convey the essence of their struggle—which handily leaves a lot of room in the film to tell Billy's story.

Billy Elliot: Special Edition
Billy himself is played wonderfully by Jamie Bell, a young man only thirteen years old at the start of production. Billy's youthful energy is relayed in spectacular style by Bell, who holds his own in an increasingly emotion-filled role that demands a capable acting range as well as a physicality that convinces us of Billy's potential. And Billy is seen to hold the same grim determination of his father and brother, but he can harness his feelings in a more productive way. He's able to make the breakthrough that takes him beyond tradition, beyond life in a pit, much to the dismay of his family.

Billy's struggle against the staunch views of his father and brother is aided by ballet teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, ably played by Julie Walters who brings a stock cliché (failed dancer sees outlet in young protégé) to chain-smoking life. One thing that bonds all these characters is their determination and their belief in their cause, however misguided it may prove to be. And even in the face of Billy's gruff family, Mrs. Wilkinson refuses to back down, able to foresee a different future for this special boy. And once Jackie has seen a glimpse of his lad's talent, his will is such that even he crosses the picket lines to work for money to send Billy to London for his audition with the Royal Ballet School. This provides the most raw, emotional scene in the film, one that even got cynical old me to shed a tear or two, as Jackie breaks down in Tony's arms while approaching the pit, knowing that he must do the unthinkable in order to provide a future for Billy.

But the beauty of this film is that there's not a shred of sentimentality in it, as the harsh reality of the miners' strike proves. Even when Jackie runs excitedly into the social club to tell everyone some good news, he's greeted with stony faces telling him that the strike is off. The unions have caved in, having accepted the inevitability of the Government's closure scheme, and one of the next shots is a group of dejected workers (including Jackie and Tony) heading back down the mine. Billy's personal triumph is superbly contrasted by the capitulation of the unions, and provides a bitter-sweet tang to the last reel.

The large amount of swearing—which was toned down accordingly for the PG-13 American release—also helps to remind us that everything is not neat and pretty in this world, never giving way to the schmaltz that has penetrated Hollywood to it's very core. Actually, there is one moment that could've had Tate & Lyle written all over it: we get a brief, imagined moment of Billy's mum in the kitchen. But any sugar-potential quickly disappears as Billy's brief vision moans at him for drinking milk from the bottle! Even the film's teary-eyed final moments are mercifully short, avoiding cheap sentiment. There are also some laughs to be had throughout, some played more subtly than others.

Billy Elliot: Special Edition
Daldry's direction is as effective as one could ask for. He may rely too much on musical montages, but it's what gives the film its feel-good momentum. Daldry's framing is neat but rarely memorable, aside from a couple of stand-out shots, but then this film doesn't need anything more as long as the dynamism of the dancing - and more importantly, Billy's expression of his feelings—is conveyed accurately. To this end, there's a kinetic undercurrent to Daldry's camera, whether through camera movement or the rapid cutting involved in the musical montages, and it all helps to convey the energetic nature of Billy's craft. The predominantly glam-rock soundtrack (more on that below) helps to put the capper on this, as the songs are so toe-tappingly infectious it's hard not to get swept up in Billy's world. This carries over the feel-good feeling into the slightly more serious second half of the film, as Billy's family realises that this is his way out and that further sacrifices may have to be made in order to get him there.

My two biggest gripes with the film are Billy's sexually curious, cross-dressing friend Michael (played sweetly by Stuart Wells) and the slight lack of period authenticity. Firstly, Billy's mate is an ancillary character who seems to be there purely to drive home the theme of social alienation that both Billy and his family feel, albeit for different reasons. And it's supposed to be set in 1984, a time when hair, fashion and music was so bad it was legendary, but everyone in the film has respectable hairdos (look at Jamie's spiky crop), the clothes don't seem to hail from the decade that taste forgot (apart from one spectacularly awful thing that Julie Walters gets to wear!) and even the soundtrack feels anachronistic, comprised mainly of T. Rex tunes that hail from the early ‘70s! For me, a genuine ‘80s feel is somewhat lacking from Billy Elliot, although it’s not alone—I thought Donnie Darko failed miserably with it‘s own ‘80s setting, but that's a whole other topic...

Moans aside, Billy Elliot is a feel-good film that rarely patronizes the viewer, instead presenting the struggles of Billy and his family - indeed, his whole community—with a refreshingly clear perspective. The film is uncluttered by the sentimentality that bogs down so many Hollywood efforts, even avoiding the patronizing outlook of stable mates like The Full Monty. The acting is good across the board, and although accents may waver you never doubt the tenacity of the characters. As director Stephen Daldry's first feature film, Billy Elliot is better than it has any right to be. And any film that features Geoff from Byker Grove delivering the line "You look like a right w*nker to me, son" gets a thumbs up from me!

Video
Billy Elliot has been given an anamorphic video transfer, faithful to its original projection ratio of 1.85:1. The print displays a noticeable amount of dirt and debris, but other than this it looks in good shape. The often drab colour scheme of the film is well represented here, and colour reproduction in general is good, featuring subtle gradations. Flesh tones always appear authentic, a big plus for such a character driven film as this. Contrast isn't perhaps the best it can be, as a little bit of detail is lost in the shadows of some of the darker scenes, but for the most part the black level is decent enough. There's a light layer of grain in the image, but it's rendered almost imperceptible by the slightly soft level of detail. The noticeable edge halos don't help matters either, and detract from creating a more filmic appearance to this transfer.

Billy Elliot: Special Edition
On the plus side, there's nothing else on the movie disc aside from the film and a solitary English audio track & subtitles, so you'd think that there's plenty of room for a good quality compression job—and you'd be right. There's no outright blocking on textures, colours never smear or bleed, and aside from a very small amount of mosquito noise around the main titles it's a quite inconspicuous compression effort (excellent even, given that this is on a single-layer disc). Overall, it's a very capable transfer, but it rarely rises above mediocre because of the limited disc space.

Audio
The movie has been given a regulation Dolby Digital 5.1 track encoded at 448Kbps, and it does a good job. It's not the most enveloping track that you'll ever hear, but when it comes to the all-important music it delivers in spades. The music is spread crisply across the front of the sound stage with ambient support from the rears, and there's solid support from the sub. Dialogue is also well represented, never sounding too harsh or too low, although the looped dialogue (as always) stands out like a sore thumb.

The various foley effects for Billy's dancing are always carried off nicely, with snappy, well-timed clicks, drags and taps (according to the director they were performed by Jamie Bell himself because the foley artist couldn't match up with the moves that Jamie had put on film). Other sound effects have a surprising amount of LFE weight to them, like the lift carrying the dejected miners down to the pit, or the sound of a bus having to brake sharply. It's a pity that, given Universal's recent infatuation with the DTS format, there was no such track here, but Universal saw the chance to penny-pinch and squeezed the film into a single-layer disc instead. However, the Dolby Digital track performs well enough.

Extras
There's absolutely nothing on the first disc, not even a trailer. And although we get a second disc full of mostly new extras, it's a shame that a lot of it is for the Billy Elliot musical instead of the film itself, revealing the purely promotional aspect of this re-release. The extras disc is split into three sections; tellingly, 'The Musical' is up first and looks at the stage show with three separate features.

Billy Elliot: Special Edition
'The Real Billy Elliot Diaries' is a twenty-one minute look at what life is like for the lads chosen to be the first three West End Elliots, giving us interviews with the boys and their parents, as well as those behind the stage show (which includes Stephen Daldry) with a relevant clip from the film occasionally thrown in. Next is 'From Stage To Screen', another twenty-minute look at the stage show and what it took to get onto the West End stage, again featuring input from Stephen Daldry and other key collaborators like Elton John. These two features are well put together, but ultimately they're too short to give us any meaningful insight into the stage production and are only worth watching once. They certainly don't enhance your enjoyment of the film either, although hearing 'Merry Christmas, Mrs Thatcher' is enough to put a smile on anyone's face - as long as they're not Tory supporters. This section is rounded up by a thirty-second spot advertising the stage show. Subtle, huh?

'The Movie' is the next section, which contains extra material specific to the film. It's headed by 'Breaking Free', the same twenty-minute making-of that featured on the original Billy Elliot DVD. It's a promo piece basically, voiced over in typical cheesy American fashion, and it features interviews with Jamie Bell, Stephen Daldry, Julie Walters, the producers & writer and others. Again, no real depth is to be found here, just sound bites about how the film came to be, what challenges they faced, how they like the characters etc. It's superficially interesting, and features lots of behind-the-scenes footage, but really isn't worth a second viewing.

The best part of this section is the deleted & extended scenes, consisting of a separate reel each for Billy, Tony and Dad (Jackie). The scenes last for twenty-two minutes altogether and are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen. They appear to be in an advanced state of post-production (surprising for such a low-budget production) with good video quality and intelligible dialogue. There are a few extra character beats, but much of it is more overtly political stuff focussing on the miners' struggle, and was rightfully put aside as it would've slowed the film a bit too much. Another section with five minutes worth of extended scenes is also included. Thankfully, director Stephen Daldry provides an alternate commentary track for all these excised scenes, and it proves to be a worthy addition to the disc. He talks about the particulars of certain shots, how the actors coped with what was needed from them, how he feels about certain scenes and so on. He does pause to watch occasionally, but his honest commentary style is endearing and should've been put to better use with a full-length commentary for the film, an extra that this re-release is sorely lacking.

Billy Elliot: Special Edition
The last section is called 'The Music', and is split into sections covering each of the main songs used in the film, or you can use the 'Play All' feature. At first I thought this would be a useless feature in the style of the 'Action Overload' bits from some Buena Vista DVDs, i.e. just a superfluous collection of bits of the film, but what we actually get is several musical segments from the film overlaid with more good commentary from director Daldry. He talks about the music, yes, but he also talks a lot about each scene that is presented with the music. Running for just over twenty-four minutes, this is the best extra on the disc. But there's no reason why the film and these extras could not have been put onto one dual-layer disc. I can only guess that proclaiming something as a '2-disc Special Edition' plays better in the minds of consumers.

Overall
Billy Elliot is a wonderful film, but even here in this two-disc re-release it doesn't get the treatment it deserves. The film has been squeezed onto a single-layer disc, resulting in average video quality. It could even be the old transfer! There's a second disc of extras, but the majority of the new material focuses on promoting the stage show. What's there for the film is enjoyable enough, specifically Stephen Daldry's commentary on the deleted scenes and the 'Music' section. But there's simply not enough here to warrant a re-purchase. A better video transfer and a director’s commentary for the film would’ve made this edition much more appealing.


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