Does the perfect movie exist? Billy Elliot must come very close. From its brilliant casting, to clever cinematography to ... foot stomping choreography, this movie has got it all. The freshness and originality of Billy Elliot almost jumps off the screen. The British production house, Working Title Films over the last five years or so have had some great hits: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones's Diary, Elizabeth and in late 2000 we got Billy Elliot. They take great risks by using untried scriptwriters, directors and young actors and somehow have produced a string of fabulous movies.
The plot of Billy Elliot is simple enough; a North Country lad from a coal mining family discovers the joys of dance. Against opposition from his father and elder brother, young Billy discovers himself and his talents. All this happens within the vortex of Margaret Thatcher's mid-1980's economic and social revolution, which swirls around them.
At first glance, you might be tempted to classify Billy Elliot into the well-trodden school of gritty, British social realism, best expressed by Ken Loach of Cathy Come Home fame. Although mostly set in a working class world, the direction and camera work captures scenes of outstanding beauty. Cranes and bridges move like graceful, colourful birds; a kitchen table containing just two sauce bottles and duck-egg blue salt and pepper shakers has the aesthetics of an Old Master's still life.
The film's Director of Photography, Brian Tufano, has been quoted as saying, "... framing, composition, colours and texture are the elements you need to convey a story." Some scenes captured by Tufano's camera are nothing short of magical. We have Billy and his girlfriend Debbie walking past a wall of riot-shielded policemen. She nonchalantly rattles a stick along the shields and then she passes behind a parked police van. The van moves off and Debbie has disappeared. Has she been beamed up or abducted?
Billy's elder brother, Tony, a hotheaded union agitator, is chased along the streets near the Elliot family's terrace house. The lanes are full of virginal white, bedsheets hanging out to dry. Tony gets caught up in these as the police lay into him with their truncheons. We have the understatement of only seeing his blood seeping through the shroud-like sheets. If this movie were out of today's Hollywood, it would have been full-on gore. Despite the drama and action in this scene, it has an almost comic touch, with the soundtrack giving us The Clash doing London Calling. The chase through the streets and houses could come straight from a Max Sennet Keystone Cops movie from the 1920s.
In the reconciliation scene between Billy and his Dad, we see the two of them perched on a fence. A cemetery - where Billy's Mum lies buried - is in the foreground. Behind the fence is a field of golden ripe corn and on the skyline there are the sinister looking headframes of the coal mines. When we see the two of them wrestling and laughing in the cornfield, we are reminded that truly emotionally moving scenes in movies are possible without relying on Hollywood's formulaic schmaltz.
The blending of classical and contemporary music throughout the movie, both as a setting for the dance routines and as background music is natural and seamless. The climactic final scene, which is set 14 years later, has Billy debuting in a starring role in the Royal Ballet's Swan Lake. The build-up and tension from Tchaikovsky's music takes us to that transcending moment where Billy launches himself into a grand jete, where he seems to float in space.
Billy Elliot is a film that appeals at many levels, but the best recommendation is to just sit back and enjoy one of the best movies you will see in a long time.
As a footnote, it's worth seeing the DVD version of the movie since the subtitles will really help you get the most from the subtle nuances in the thickly accented dialogue.