Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Rating (out of 5): ****½
Poor 15 year-old Billy Caspar. His father is gone, his mother is distant, his brother is a bullying lush, and his schoolmaster has dubbed him inconsequential, another disposable member of "the generation that never listens." All that awaits Billy is to fail high school and join his peers over at the coal mine that functions as the only industry in the depressed Yorkshire hamlet Billy calls home.
But on one of Billy's frequent wanderings through the surrounding woods and farmlands, he discovers a young kestrel (the eponymous Kes). He endeavors to train the bird and, in the process, discovers a purpose outside of the brutal determinism governing his working class milieu. The above synopsis - boy escapes oppressive childhood via feathered friend - could easily devolve into cliché and treacle. However, with Kes, Ken Loach rose to the forefront of visionary, British social realist directors by turning a time worn tale into an indelible meditation on childhood and (naturally, this being Loach) class struggle.
Shot in real locations and using non-actors (except for Colin Welland as a compassionate English teacher), Kes takes an unsentimental look at Billy (David Bradley) as he weathers childhood's awkward end. From the time he gets up, Billy is pitted against everyone in his life. His brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher) literally wrestles him out of the bed they share in their tiny home. His mother (Lynne Perrie) calls him a "hopeless case." His boss at a newsstand berates him for lateness. Only Kes is within Billy's control and even she, Billy is quick to point out, cannot be tamed.
Inspired by the Czech New Wave, Loach and his DP (Chris Menges, who would later win two Oscars for The Killing Fields and The Mission) create a cinema of observation. The camera shows up for the action, not the other way around. The episodic structure of the script - adapted from Barry Hines' "A Kestrel for a Knave" by Loach, Hines, and producer Tony Garnett - allows the viewer to take concentrated glimpses into the characters quotidian lives. We watch Billy's morning as a paper boy, his humiliation during a school game of soccer, and - most heartbreakingly - his meeting with a career counselor who can only recommend that Billy pursue a life in the coal mines.
Though Kes is infused with plenty of humor, Loach has been quick to label it an angry film. He feels it illustrates everything that was - and still is - wrong with England's exploitation of the working class. However, Bradley's portrayal of Billy brings an inner life to the film that makes it more than just an angry polemic against the cruelties of institutionalized classism. Political intentions aside, Kes ultimately belongs to the coming-of-age tradition alongside The 400 Blows, and later films George Washington and Ratcatcher.
Kes has long hovered near the top of my to-see list. It's been feted repeatedly, scoring the number seven spot on BFI's Best British Films of the 20th Century and the ranking number four on Time Out's recent Best British Films list. However, it's not been easy to find, particularly in any sort of watchable transfer. Grimy VHS and DVD rips of the same have been about all I could scare up. Thankfully, the ever-reliable Criterion Collection has remedied this scarcity by producing a beautiful double-disc edition of Loach's breakthrough. In addition to a painstaking restoration of Menges' verdant cinematography and the monaural soundtrack, the set includes Loach's second television feature (Cathy Come Home), a 1993 television special on Loach, and a recently produced "making of" featurette. The latter is especially informative; Loach elaborates on the political underpinnings of the film and the unlikely circumstances that allowed the picture to be made (a particularly charming anecdote reveals that Tony Richardson used his newly minted Tom Jones clout to secure funding for Kes).
A final note: though the film is technically English language, as with Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher this plays better the first time around with subtitles on. The northern England dialect is thick and, for me at least, difficult to parse.
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