AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD: 7TH NOVEMBER, from EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT
RUNNING TIME: 110 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
15 year-old Billy Casper lives in the mining town of Barnsley and has little hope in life. He is bullied, both at home by his physically and verbally abusive older half-brother Jud, and at school. Although he insists that his earlier petty criminal behaviour is behind him, he occasionally steals eggs and milk from milk floats. His father has left the family some time ago, and his mother refers to him in the film as a “hopeless case.” One day, Billy takes a kestrel from a nest on a farm, and learns how to train it. As the relationship between Billy and ‘Kes’, the kestrel, improves during the training, so – possibly – do Billy’s outlook and horizons….
Watching a film widely regarded as a classic is often rather daunting, especially if one intends to review it afterwards. There can often be disappointment, and I then have try to explain why I didn’t get from it what millions of other people do and feel like something of an outcast whilst doing so. I’ll never forget sitting through Breakfast At Tiffany’s [I hope I’ll never be put in the position of reviewing it] and wondering if the smug, tiresome dreck I was watching was the same film that is so widely adored. Then there’s the other side of the coin, where you do find yourself enjoying and admiring a movie as much as the majority, but then struggle to write much about it because you’ve already read so much yourself and fall into the trap of just reiterating what others have said. Thankfully the latter won’t happen to me with Kes, because I’ve barely read anything about the film aside from doing a small amount of background research just now to incorporate into the next paragraph of this review. Within minutes, I knew that I was watching a great movie because it totally had me under its spell in its low-key, realistic manner, and yet on the surface it’s really such a simple affair – but one that contains important social commentary which is still pertinent today. I have a soft spot for ‘child and animal’ stories, but this one left me with intense sadness at its brutal, but true, message.
It was Disney who were first interested in filming the Barry Hines novel of the same title, but Hines refused to sell them the rights as they wanted to alter the sad ending to a happy one [and this is coming from a studio which produced a film from 1957 which is still notorious for traumatising kids with its conclusion]. Loach let Hines co-write the screenplay with him and Tony Garnett, and they made few major changes aside from altering the order of some events. Though set in Barnsley, and using locals as extras and even prominent characters, Kes was shot in Athersley South and Lundwood, though still in the area where the miners were at that time the lowest paid workers in a developed country. David Bradley won the lead role after an open audition held for thousands of school children in the district, though he was more excited by the free food and drink provided than the actual audition. Maximum realism was created in all sorts of ways, from having the boys in the caning scene caned for real [though they got paid for it], to having Bradley spend much time with the three kestrels used and his anger and disgust at the end being totally real because Loach played a trick on him. Though widely released in the UK, the thick Yorkshire accents in the film caused problems with the United Artists executives and cast members were asked to re-dub some of the dialogue scenes so the accents weren’t so thick, though the 1969 film still wasn’t released in the USA until three years later.
Kes begins with an alarm going off. Billy has to share a bed with his brother Jud, and Jud has to get up really early to go to work in the local mine. Jud kicks his brother when he’s told by him that he needs to get up, refuses to re-do the alarm for him, and puts on the light purely to annoy him. Now Loach apparently regretted making Jud into someone so unpleasant, and he was possibly right, but he’s still a horribly believable character. “In another four weeks you’ll be getting up with me” he says to Billy who has almost finished school, but Billy is horrified at the thought of working down the mine. Pretty much ignored by his mother and his father having left, he leads a lonely existence, and is sometimes even bullied and the butt of jokes in the classroom where even the teachers don’t seem to be much help. The screenwriters though refuse to fall into the trap of making him whiter than white: he’s sometimes rude and a petty thief, though he also has his bike nicked which means that he has to do his paper round on foot. His only escape seems to be reading Desperate Dan comics in the nearby countryside….until we get the first of two truly beautiful moments in this film, where Billy is walking through the woods and then spots the falcon which he will subsequently call Kes for the first time. Now, left alone in nature, without any of his family, schoolmates or teachers to bring him down and de-humanise him, there is a glimmer of hope for Billy. When he sees Kes in flight for the first time, something truly moves in him, and inspires him. The gorgeous flute-led music helps to give the scene its gentle magic.
Soon, Kes, who is to us a symbol of Billy’s way out of his miserable, poverty-filled environment, and who is to Billy his own private happiness, becomes the only important thing in Billy’s life as he gets up even earlier than his brother to spend time with him [time which by the way also includes killing other animals – nothing is sugar coated in this incredibly honest film] and train him. The second really beautiful scene in the film is when children in Billy’s class are asked to state facts about themselves, and Billy, with a twinkle in his eye, talks about his hobby, and his enthusiasm feels like a ray of light cutting through a thick dark cloud of boredom, despair and resignation. For once, Billy has people’s positive attention in the classroom, and things improve even more when one of his teachers shows a genuine interest in him. However, Loach, Hines and Garnett clearly show the school overall to be a miserable, uninspiring place where the teachers not only seem to not care if they cane the wrong person, but also tend not to care about the futures of the kids whom they are supposed to be preparing and shaping for their futures. Even a visit to a job guidance counsellor is uninspiring and only gives Billy a few options. The latter scene is a perfect example of the film’s restraint and intelligence as you keep expecting someone to mention animals, not to mention falcons, and nobody ever does. The desperately sad conclusion to the film is one that I partially predicted, if not quite in the exact way that it occurred. It still packs a quietly powerful punch because we’ve been so invested in Billy’s story and everything just seems so authentic….though I think that you’re left with the hint that good could still come of it. Oddly enough, it seemed to me that the film was missing a scene or two at the end, but then life often doesn’t have tidy conclusions either.
Overall, Kes seems to be a sad lament for the grey existence of typical working class life. One of the key moments to me is a sequence down the local boozer where mother wishes that Jud had done better than become a miner but, at another table [though it’s not immediately obvious because of the unusual editing and choice of shots in the scene], Jud says, in a way that seems totally genuine, how he’s very happy with his life. All of this never gets too miserable because of first, the poignancy of the bits with Billy and his falcon, and secondly, the plentiful amount of humour, be in bitingly funny lines or whole set pieces like an unforgettable school football match where the coach thinks that he’s really ‘something’ and lives out some fantasy by besting his juniors, though there a dark undertone even in this portion of the film and the coach soon reveals himself to be something of a sadist. Meanwhile, the camera tends to stay back and linger, constantly positioning the characters amidst their backgrounds, while cinematographer Chris Menges superbly contrasts the lush countryside with the dull town, his most pointed shots showing both in the same shot, my favourite being when Billy stands in a field with a grey hill in the distance over which you can just make out part of a crane. Maybe simple stuff symbolically, but it strengthens the overall theme.
In a performance mostly free of the usual child-actor mannerisms, Bradley gives a performance of considerable naturalism and inner strength which doesn’t always require him to do a lot – he just is – and, while the other cast members [Brian Glover stands out as the horrid, deluded coach] are more of a mixed bag, there’s nobody who is actually dreadful. John Cameron’s music nicely evokes the outdoors and the feeling of being free, and therefore is hardly used during the scenes set in the town. Having being very impressed by Loach’s latest film I, Daniel Blake which I watched in part as a primer to watching Kes, I was fairly sure that Kes would be good, but there was still that nagging feeling that it would be a let down. Fortunately I can say that it’s a film entirely worthy of the adulation it generally gets. Though I write for a website called Horror Cult Films, it’s sometimes necessary for a film like Kes to serve as a reminder, that despite all the edge of seat scares, thrilling action, amazing visuals, and so forth that we may tend to usually go for in our movies, sometimes there’s nothing more interesting than ordinary life.
Eureka’s Blu-ray release of Kes occasionally seems slightly out of focus during some of the close-ups – I don’t know if that’s how the film was shot or a mastering flaw [most probably the latter], but other than that I cannot fault the picture quality, the greens of the countryside scenes especially jumping out at the viewer. I watched the film with its original soundtrack and understood it fine, but Eureka have also included the international release track with the re-dubbed scenes. I checked out a couple of bits and they seeemed to jar a little, but that’s probably because I’d just watched the whole film with the original track. Eureka seem to have been unable to use any of the special features included on Criterion’s Region ‘A’ release, which include a making of documentary, but have certainly made up for this with their own extras which include six new interviews. I watched the NFT interview with Loach, which seems to be a portion of a much longer piece, where he tells not one but two funny stories about Brian Glover, and then the hour and a half Kes reunion panel, which was a total joy to watch with lots of recollections, information and observations. I’d recommend watching it as soon after seeing the film as you can, as it’s a wonderful companion piece.
*Brand new digital restoration of the film, supervised and approved by director Ken Loach
*Alternate release soundtrack, with post-dubbed dialogue
*English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
*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
*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