Review: Kes

Here’s a nugget of British cinema to cherish forever! Ken Loach’s stunning second feature is now on rerelease in a restored new print, and I am happy to say that this is one of those films that was incredible back in its day, and has somehow improved with time. Kes is clearly ‘of its time’, but paradoxically, it hasn’t dated one iota.

I came out of the cinema wondering how that could be. When it was made in 1969, it was understood by viewers to be a satire on everyday life – a film doing something that very few had ever truly achieved: painting a picture of life as it was, without any narrative contrivances or manipulative plot devices to jump through on the way. It was a beautiful, haunting piece of social realism, showcasing a director at the top of his game, whose intuition and savvy about the place he was filming and the people inhabiting it was astounding. The single, simple plot line following Billy, a young boy training a kestrel, has spoken to three generations, and it is as moving now as it ever was.

The real brilliance of Kes lies in the fact that it is now something more than it was in 1969; it is now a vital piece of British cultural history. History teachers as well as English teachers will be able to show this film and say – ‘that is what life was like’. Because it was. Kes could have been released this year and been hailed as a magnificent period drama. Some older members of the audience, I’m sure, related wholeheartedly to the characters they saw on screen. Loach used mostly non-actors – people who really lived in the area he was shooting – to play those characters of his. The whole movie just smacks of authenticity, both on an emotional and realistic level, from the sixties’ slang to the dirt that seems encrusted perpetually on Billy’s hands.

It almost spills over with stunning sequences. Perhaps the best, the most iconic of these is a PE lesson on football – Loach mixes comedy (and it really is laugh-out-loud funny) with satire seamlessly. There are moments when his anger at the unfairness of the society that surrounds Billy, and in particular the education system, scorch the screen. In his training of the kestrel, Billy discovers a kind of fierce passion that he never knew before. Repressed by an uncaring education system and a dysfunctional family life, he is captivated by the kestrel’s breathtaking beauty, its indifference juxtaposed with its fascinating elegance. There is a wonderful scene in which Billy leads his teacher home and talks to him freely, honestly, about why he loves that kestrel so much, why he is so mesmerised by it. He may not be academic, or even terribly bright, but he thinks deeply about the world around him, and understands far more than others around him believe. He feels the cruelty and injustice of this system acutely, even if he isn’t educated enough to express it eloquently. The audience cannot help sympathising with him.

I think what most surprised me about the film, aside from its searing realism, was its artistic direction. There are incredibly imaginative flourishes of artistic vision to be found here – perhaps the paradigm of which can be found in one of the earliest scenes in which Billy sees two kestrels, flying in unison over a field, and is astonished at their grace and delicate, geometric beauty. I also enjoyed the opportunity of seeing a film cram packed with authentic Yorkshire accents – so different from the uncanny, superficial clarity of most actors in a film where sound editing has made sure that every single word can be heard perfectly.

The movie is based on a novel by Barry Hines. I haven’t read it. I’m not entirely sure that I want to. All I know is, this is a movie filled with a heartbreaking humanity – Loach’s fierce evocation of human feeling really is quite humbling. Just over forty years after its initial release, it can be safely said that Kes has earned its place among the best British films ever made!

Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (November ’11)