Eye For Film >> Movies >> Kes (1969) Film Review
Reviewed by: David Graham
Ken Loach's calling card has remained one of the most revered British films since its release in 1969, and looks better than ever in its new print. A lyrical but heart-breaking adaptation of Barry Hines' mainstay of the English classroom, A Kestrel For A Knave, the film cleaves close to the book in many regards but also indelibly sets out its director's stall and style, examining socio-political concerns with the authentic air of a documentarian while never neglecting the human drama of a highly emotional story.
Billy Casper is a feckless teenager whose miserable schooldays are coming to an end. Even greater misery awaits down t'pit; mining is about the only gainful employment available to his hometown's youth. He is bullied at home by his resentful half-brother Jud and at school for being smaller and rougher than the rest, but he also has an unspoilt wonderland of natural beauty just beyond the seemingly endless red-brick rows. Billy finds solace and escape through his painstaking rearing of a young kestrel he's snatched from a nest; his skill with and dedication towards 'Kes' prove that there's more to Billy than meets the eye, but his repressive society and its unsympathetic adults threaten to break his spirit and drag him down into the life he dreads.
Opening on Billy and Jud sharing a bed with a solitary pillow, Loach immediately emphasises how the family's dire situation informs everything they are and do. Jud doesn't want to get out of bed to go to work down the mines, while Billy doesn't want to get into trouble for not making him get up; there's nothing good-natured about their sparring, the older boy constantly taking his dissatisfaction with his own situation out on his helpless little brother.
Loach follows Billy out on his daily paper round, the boy having to hoof it since Jud has made off with his bike. The director uses fast-moving shots here to convey Billy's youthful energy but also his stifling, monotone surroundings. We see that Billy is a habitual liar, an opportunistic thief, a bit of a cheeky scallywag, but also that he still has his own sense of humour and responsibility.
As the film progresses, Loach establishes a cycle similar to that of the book, wherein we see Billy being brought down by his interactions with those around him, and released through his excursions into the natural world. Hines emphasised this contrast through the juxtaposition of very dry language for the town-set episodes with florid, poetic prose during the country-set scenes; here, Loach relies on his jaunty but occasionally melancholic folky score and some gorgeous but un-romanticised cinematography to highlight the boy's affinity with the woodlands he explores. Loach often keeps the camera at a distance to give us a sense of Billy getting lost in the brush, and to show that he is in his element there.
Another scene shows him enthusiastically reading a Desperate Dan comic on a hillside, with an industrial backdrop looming ominously, a nagging reminder of what will probably be the boy's imminent fate. Loach cuts across the comic's panels as if to animate them while Billy narrates the speech balloons with a relish that betrays just how much of a child he still is. Later, we see him devouring words from his stolen falconry book that he obviously struggles to understand; his imagination and determination are achingly evident, but the narrow-minded community and rigid, didactic education system are shown to be fatally failing the boy.
Loach's eye for detail is unerring when documenting the restrictive atmosphere of the school; it's all comb-overs and canings, dry teaching falling on deaf ears, hypocritical Bible lessons that no-one heeds, least of all the teachers. The boys frequently get caned for things they didn't do, but it's still a shocking indictment of a country's educational system that they'd 'rather have t'stick than do lessons'. One prolonged scene in the jaded headmaster's office goes from hilarious to heart-breaking, as he rants at and berates the line-up of boys, his bemused summation of their attitude leading to his own acknowledgement of the futility of his measures. Loach's unflinching eye for suffering lingers on a tiny, innocent pupil on an errand for his teacher, as he's lumped in with the rest and punished for nothing, a very literal example of shooting the messenger; it's no wonder the boys don't give a damn about school.
Later, Billy's inability to come up with anything to say about himself when prompted in English class gives way to him taking over the lesson, enlightening his enraptured classmates and even the teacher by explaining everything he's learned about falconry. This scene highlights how isolated Billy has become even among his peers - he's only brought out of his shell by their jibes about his attachment to Kes - but also shows how much capacity he has to absorb information and to achieve goals for himself. It's a sign of Billy's maturity that he realises Kes isn't a pet - she's a wild animal who he loves and respects for allowing him to be around her. This deadly serious approach to his hobby makes the scenes of him pursuing and relating it all the more affecting, with suitably nimble camera-work capturing the spectacular dances between boy and bird.
His family are equally well-drawn; Loach and Hines developed the screenplay together with producer Tony Garnett, coming up with some original material that fleshes out Jud and his mother even further. Their heated banter in the house before a night out betrays how they're victims of their society too; when they both end up in the same dingy pub, Jud's humble admission of how contented he is masks his deep frustration, while his mother's neediness and disappointment with her lot are painfully clear in her attempts to get her boyfriend to take her more seriously. Jud can't resist belittling his mother and her man, while she can't help but rise to him; their poverty has meant they can't afford to get away from each other, despite the bitterness between them, with Billy caught in the middle.
It's not all doom and gloom though, Loach tempering events with splashes of colourful humour; Billy's attempt to con a savvily judgemental librarian highlights the boy's sharp wit, while a half-time football match (replete with sarcastic score captions) is ridiculously entertaining thanks to Brian Glover's flamboyantly hopeless and egotistical PE teacher. Even when this lengthy scene descends into bullying for Billy, the boy's amusing wiliness keeps the audience invested in his plight. Colin Welland also brings a glimmer of hope to the film as the English teacher who takes a belated interest in the boy, his appreciation for his efforts being all the more heart-warming for inevitably being too little, too late.
There's no getting away from where this story's going; even people who've never seen the film are probably aware of its ending. To Loach's credit, he builds up to the tragedy by infusing the final scenes with the pace of a thriller. As we witness Billy making a careless mistake that will have drastic consequences, it becomes all too clear that the boy is digging a grave for himself, and the tension mounts as he comes to realise the gravity of what he has done, and of the action that might be taken in return. When he flees a condescending but fateful careers interview, his hunt for Kes isn't quite as fraught as it was in the novel, but it's still inexorably painful to watch, Loach returning to the breathlessly quick shots he employed at the start.
The climactic confrontation is intensely upsetting, the film ending on an elegiac note that's radically harsh and unsentimental. Loach's intentions are made brutally clear just by his abbreviation of the novel's more poetic title; he aims to cut to the quick and appeal to everyday people, and hopefully hold up a mirror to their existence that might galvanise them into reaction. The director has repeatedly followed this blueprint since, most memorably and effectively in Family Life and Sweet Sixteen, but Kes's enduring popularity is all the more impressive for just how blunt and bleak it ultimately is.
The film's impact would never be so powerful without its wealth of authentic, compelling performances, many from non-actors. Their thick Northern brogue can seem impenetrable - teachers today often screen the film with subtitles - but there is unmistakable heart to their realistic portrayals of such recognisable characters.
Lynne Perrie is outstanding as Mrs Casper, infusing her steely exterior with real vulnerability and pathos. Freddie Fletcher is also excellent as Jud, making what could have been a nasty piece of work somewhat pathetic and sympathetic thanks to his intrinsic, laddish likeability and a genuine sense of barely-suppressed rage over the cards life has dealt him. David Bradley is, of course, the glue that holds the whole film together, his sad eyes and slight frame belying an inner strength and fortitude beyond his years. He's totally convincing as both a cunning knave and sensitive soul, keeping the audience onside for the duration and Billy in our thoughts long after the end titles.
Kes is one of those films that's perhaps dwarfed by its reputation; it's a deeply personal and humble little film at its core, and its lingering effect can be lost on viewers cynical about its agenda or unresponsive to its basic concerns. It remains a milestone of cinema - and not just of the British variety - thanks to Loach's deceptively progressive style, Hines' delicately balanced and nuanced story, and the committed turns by ordinary people who today give the movie a real sense of historical importance and emotional weight. Some find it moving, others just depressing; it might underwhelm the uninitiated, or irritate those who by now will be fed up with the neo-realist, kitchen sink dramas it spawned, but it's a true classic that fully deserves its due, and this beautifully (but not overly) restored reissue will hopefully see its timeless qualities endear it to audiences new and old all over again.Reviewed on: 17 Sep 2011