Release: 7th November 2016
Billy Casper (David Bradley), a tormented working-class boy who is subjected to abuse both at school and at home. The son of a single mother (Lynne Perrie), Billy’s existence is mostly bleak until he takes up an interest in falconry and begins training a kestrel that he finds on a nearby farm. While Billy forms a close bond with the falcon, his hardscrabble life and harsh environment prove to be a challenge to the boy and his bird.
Long before Kes became the ever suffering companion of Craig David, she was actually the life altering saviour for a young lad from Barnsley called Billy. Now that Ken Loach’s career defining drama is nearing 50, those lovely boys and girls at Eureka have seen to it that this seminal British masterpiece gets a stunning restoration for its blu-ray release. The miserable North never looked so good.
Kes is one of those movies that from the outside looks as though it has gained greatness – voted 7th in the BFI’s list of best British films of all time! – purely because people say it is, rather than because people genuinely think it. But once you log in and sign on to what the film actually has to offer, it is easy to see why this heartbreaking social drama is so widely acclaimed. The subject matter may now feel a little dated, but the moral lessons and social commentaries are still just as pertinent. The football match remains a highlight. From a literal, physical stance it has that whimsical air of ‘remember when’ about it, as the ludicrous Mr. Sugden (played beautifully by Brian Glover), vicarious lives out his dreams as a football hero by trampling down and bullying the teenage boys he is, supposedly, teaching a P.E lesson to. From the poorly chosen kit, to the rock hard ball, to the inevitable loss of interest by boys standing around and climbing goal posts, it is a brilliant ode to any British school child who was ever forced to do outdoor physical education at school. On a more metaphorical level, the scene speaks volumes about authority in British culture. The corralling and belittlement of lower classes and the young in favour of bolstering self worthy among the ruling bodies is a primary example here. Choice is an illusion as Sugden pushes the boys into “choosing sides”, even with specific placement on the field being forcibly assured. When things – the penalty – do not go Sugden’s way, he bitches and cries foul play, allowing himself a second go until he gets what he wants. Then it all ends with the borderline torture of young Billy, while encouraging his peers to take ownership of it. This is the sort of injustice that, rightly or wrongly, is still perceived today. As the young boys in the film become disengaged, they turn to disruptive behaviour; it’s as though Loach pre-empted not only the strikes of the 80’s but the London riots of 2011.
Another remarkable act is that although the film revolves around Billy’s increasing focus on raising his stolen Kestrel, the two spend little time together on screen. There are no moments when Billy comes crying to his winged friend at night, or one sided therapy sessions between boy and bird, yet we still get a sincere sense that this bird of prey gives Billy more purpose in the world than anything around him. The scene when some human kindness from Mr. Farthing leads to an impromptu lesson on falconry is possibly one of the most emotionally uplifting moments in Loach’s illustrious career. It is an idealistic approach to left-wing philosophy, but a breath of fresh air in the otherwise oppressive environment. Billy’s world is stiflingly angry, unsupportive and ignorant. Jud inevitably proves himself to be the biggest asshole in the whole scenario, played with complete aplomb by Freddie Fletcher. But a more complex image arises, as not only do we learn that Billy perceives himself as often naughty or ill mannered, but that inevitably he seems his own worst enemy at times. If only he had just put on that bloody bet!
From a technical standing, there is little flair in Loach’s direction, but his feel for story and character is second to none. This being said, one major gripe remains that despite the dire feelings which come in the closing minutes, Loach is so reluctant to explore a ‘Hollywood’ style of filmmaking that he refuses to devote a more severe or prolonged exploration to the emotions displayed. A little more sentimentality could only have helped the scene, while instead the story just fritters out. This is of course a conscious choice on the part of the filmmaker, and one thing to note is that the story opens at the break of day and ends with someone laying to rest. It’s as if Loach wants to show us a lifecycle or a ‘day in the life of’ narrative to suggest that hope might be born in young lives at this time in this place, but very soon such hope fades away. And if ever Ken Loach has something to say, it would no doubt be just as depressing.
Film Grade: A
There are a plethora of Interviews that offer an abundance of insight into the film’s making and legacy; most notably with a very well spoken David Bradley.
The Kes Reunion Panel is poor quality and nowhere near as engaging as the NFT panel with Ken Loach.
But the most amusing, and possibly quite useful, feature is the Dubbed Audio Track from the International cut of the film. Those accents may well be authentic, but by ‘eck are they hard t’understand.
Special Features Grade: B+
Kes is everything you’d expect from realist cinema. It remains a very British tale, but one that transcends cultures. In a world of black lives mattering, refugees seeking a better life and humanitarian efforts striving to even the playing field, Kes is a stark reminder that our species, unlike the gracious Kestel, only ever makes progress in small meaningful ways.