Film Review: Kes

To Fly, Perchance To Dream

There’s something beautifully and tragically Shakespearean about Ken (Kenneth) Loach’s breakthrough movie and ode to the working class ‘Kes’ (1969). For the untrained or unaccustomed ear the local Barnsley bardesque dialect can be slightly regional Globe Theatre indecipherable at first, to the extent that (controversially) there was a slight over dub recorded (by the actors) later for the American market, indeed it was American money that financed the feature. That’s better than the proposed subtitles that were optioned at one juncture.

Following the exploits and youthful misdemeanours of 15 year old Yorkshire school boy Billy Casper (David Bradley) as he struggles to cope with the trials, tribulations, anger and projected failures of all the adults, indeed all of society in his world. It’s as though the Gods reside atop a slag heap, maliciously testing Casper’s mettle. It’s a very grey, desolate world he inhabits, but potential salvation and respite comes from the one source (and life source) the region is destroying, nature itself.

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Casper’s father has left the household years ago, leaving his harangued mum (Lynne Perrie) and a viciously brutal older brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher) who grafts down the town’s coal mines. We are introduced to the brothers in the opening scene, who despite there being a big age gap, with money being sparse to say the least, have to share a very small bed, Casper can’t even get any peace in his dreams. Indeed there are very few moments in his day when he isn’t being persecuted or criticised by somebody around him, from the minute he wakes up (even before that), every day, he’s a prisoner of his surroundings.

Despite the relentlessness of this torment from all corners, when Casper escapes after his daily morning paper round to the radiance and solace of the local unspoilt fecund fields, Nature takes on a role of divinity providing much need succour, colour, warmth and light from all the soot stained bleakness. It’s during one of these intuitive almost spiritually meditative meanderings that he discovers a kestrel nest with some chicklings.

He takes one of the birds home and begins to lovingly care for, nurture, raise and train the bird. Despite all the grief and lack of affection in his life, he brims with tenderness for this beautiful creature.

Having being filmed in 1969 there is a sense that health and safety laws didn’t actually exist yet, and of course he shouldn’t stealing birds like this, never mind rearing in a shed in his back garden. There is however such a palpable gleam from Casper (and indeed Bradley himself who had to rear the bird in real life for the role) when he intuitively doesn’t have to continue the domino sequence of brutality that all around seem to dutifully, ignorantly perpetuate.

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Loach was a huge fan of French New Wave cinema and was heavily influenced by it. He wonderfully absorbs the honesty of this school of thought, this freedom, this truth in the style, or indeed overt lack of style in ‘Kes’. Filmed with the spirit of documentary making, and naturalistic acting (Bradley hadn’t acted in a movie before), cinematography, lighting and often incorporating non actors, there is a powerful sincerity to the piece which had been adapted from the book ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ by Barry Hines (who also did the adaptation), colloquially honey rich in dialogue and character. It is this truthfulness that exposes the absolute deceit of the institutional school and society around him. People are being churned out with no qualifications, prospects, aspirations or coping mechanisms into an environment where the sole local industry is on it’s last state (deliberately) hobbled legs. Any attempt of ambition or pursuit of something else is quickly and intuitively crushed by peers or the system. You are not allowed to be different. Dutifully conform till your death.

There are some powerful moments in the film, both wonderful and brutal. The relationship and encouragement Casper receives from Mr Farthing (Colin Welland) is a delight to behold, it unequivocally shows the capacity for greatness folk intuitively have given the right encouragement. I’m sure most folk have a teacher that they remember fondly who has inspired them throughout their lives. In contrast they certainly remember other individuals such as the establishment Youth Employment Officer who maintain the status quo quashing any hope.

Loach’s veracity to the whole work creates a document that reaches far beyond the realms of the time period. Despite it’s age, there are tangible parallel’s to current climes. There are moments when it feels like another world, even planet, then there are cruelties and beliefs are frighteningly topical, prescient and encouraged by certain contemporary factions.

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This beautiful timeless and rightly highly regarded work has been given a Blu-ray release which some truly fantastic extras. Digitally restored with supervision and approval by Ken and Chris Menges (director of photography) it has a plethora of interviews that add gravatus and even more joy and wonder to the whole heartfelt adventure. The disc is worth it for the wonderful NFT interview with Ken by Derek Malcolm alone.

There’s a marinaded truthfulness throughout its entirity that isn’t often found in films, certainly not promoted, but this movie has it in coal shovels. The whole feature pulses with the heart Casper has for Kes and despite the potential all too true realism of the outcome, the warmth and glow of the possibilities and asspirations radiate out long after the final credits have flown away. To dream is to truly live.

10/10 ‘Kes’ is out on Blu-ray now.