Director: Ken Loach
Screenplay: Barry Hines, Ken Loach, Tony Garnett
Based on a Novel by: Barry Hines
Starring: David Bradley, Brian Glover, Freddie Fletcher
Running Time: 106 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Ken Loach is one of the most respected British directors of all time. He just won his second Palme d'Or for I, Daniel Blake and has enjoyed critical success throughout his career, beginning in 1966 with his groundbreaking TV film Cathy to Come Home. However, I've never been his biggest fan. I haven't seen a huge number of his films, but I haven't had a great track record with them so I tend to give them a miss. I found his first Palme d'Or winner The Wind Who Shakes the Barley quite forgettable and overrated, and a couple of others, Looking For Eric and Route Irish, were downright poor. I find the political messages can take over his films, making them feel terribly heavy handed. Plus there was a time when Britain made far too many Ken Loach style 'grim up north' political kitchen sink dramas for my liking, and I think I blamed him for their popularity when I was a budding film fan, longing for British films to break out of stereotypes.
However, my introduction to Loach was Kes, which I first watched as a teenager and loved. I haven't seen it for a good decade or two though, so when I was offered a copy of Eureka's Masters of Cinema re-release of the film to review I was worried my shaky recent run-ins with Loach were a sign that I just don't have a taste for his films.
I needn't have worried.
Kes follows Billy Casper (David Bradley), a 15 year old working class boy living in Barnsley. His mum, his school and he himself have pretty much given up hope on him. With his sixteenth birthday around the corner he's due to drop out of school and everyone expects him to follow in his brother Jud's (Freddie Fletcher) footsteps and work down the local mine. Billy doesn't want to do that, but he's grown bored of school and can't think of anything else he could do or wants to do instead, so it seems pretty inevitable. As he wanders around a local woodland though, he comes across a nest of kestrels in the shell of an old farmhouse. He's fascinated by the creatures and takes one home, with the hope of training it. Tracking down a book on falconry and using his limited reading skills, he puts all of his free time into training the bird, igniting some small spark in the boy, seeing something of himself in the untameable creature. Will this new interest be enough to steer his life in any sort of direction though or is he indeed a lost hope?
Kes is every bit as great as I remember. Light on plot but high on character, it makes a political statement about the lost youth in working class northern Britain, but never gets bogged down in delivering this message. Instead it effortlessly mixes the bleak with the humorous, showing glimmers of hope without getting sappy or sentimental. The more poignant scenes are wonderfully understated, such as when Billy opens up at school, standing in front of his classmates to tell them about his falconry. There's no big music swell to show the importance of the moment and he doesn't suddenly become super-eloquent, Loach respects his audience enough to let them realise what is happening. The same can be said of the end of the film as it cuts to credits quite soon after the climactic scene. There's no coda where we catch up with Billy to see what's happened to him in the future. We know where he's headed because the film has done enough for us to work it out.
What helps drive the film is how perfectly it captures the feel of working class northern life. I grew up not too far away from Barnsley, but wasn't around then and my family were better off than Billy's when I was his age, so I can't vouch for its authenticity, but it all feels very natural. Rather than just show how hard life was for children of his background, it also displays the pleasures, the warmth and the humour. The latter is particularly strong in some of the rough-talking banter between characters, as well as in a couple of key scenes. The most notably comic scene sees P.E. teacher Brian Glover captain one side of his pupils' football match, taking it far too seriously; making dives, yelling abuse at the kids and acting a sore loser when his team is beaten.
The Barnsley accent and dialect is kept untampered with, which might make the film tough to understand for those outside the north of England (I even struggled to make out every word), but it helps provide authenticity and added character. The locations used help this too, mixing the dirty industrial town centre with the neighbouring greenery. The scenes with Billy and Kes (the name he gives his bird) are particularly beautiful, aided by a wonderful pastoral score.
It's tough and unvarnished, but nevertheless poignant and warm at times. It has humour and heart enough to feel rich and never dull or relentlessly depressing. It's simple in presentation and plot, but perfectly formed. It certainly justifies the 'British classic' label it's earned and, watching it again all these years later, it's made me keen to give Loach a second chance. I must have been missing something in those disappointments, or I've been choosing the wrong titles from his extensive filmography.
Kes is out now on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The picture and audio quality is great, or at least as good as you can get for a film with quite a rough filming style and lo-fi audio recording.
Special features include:
- Digital restoration of the film, supervised and approved by director Ken Loach and director of photography Chris Menges, with the filmmaker s original production soundtrack, with uncompressed monaural audio on the Blu-ray edition.
- Alternate release soundtrack, with post-dubbed dialogue.
- Exclusive new video interviews with actor David Bradley, producer Tony Garnett, director of photography Chris Menges, composer John Cameron, actor Bernard Atha, and kestrel advisor Richard Hines.
- Excerpts from the 2006 Kes reunion panel at the Bradford Film Festival, featuring Ken Loach, Tony Garnett, writer Barry Hines and actor Colin Welland.
- Extensive 1992 on-stage interview at the NFT with Ken Loach, interviewed by Derek Malcolm.
- Original theatrical trailer.
- A booklet featuring new writing on the film and archival material
It's an incredibly extensive set of features that'll take you a good while to get through. It's worth the effort though as it gives you a thorough look at what went into making the film. There may be some overlap here and there, but that's a minor issue. The lengthy NFT interview is particularly strong although it gets a little sidetracked moaning about the lack of cinematic distribution for British and independent films – an important subject, but if you purely want to hear about Loach's career you might get a little impatient.