Kes (UK, 1969)

81SVojbobXL._SL1500_Directed by: Ken Loach. For those not familiar with the works of director Ken Loach, Kes, available on a typically beautiful Criterion DVD, is as good a place to start as any. From the time of its release in 1969 to now, the film has been mentioned on Best Films lists of all sorts, and it’s easy to see why. Centered around a child, and a particularly charismatic young teenager like Billy—a scrawny, unwashed, dirt poor kid from a semi-broken home—the film follows Billy and his testosterone-fuelled older half brother Jud, his jaded mother, and the various adults in authority in Billy’s life, all of whom successively give Billy a hard time, telling him that he’s no good, his life isn’t going to amount to anything with that attitude, etc. And it’s true, as we see. Looking at the violent, drunken ignorance of older brother Jud, doomed to a life as a mine worker, Billy can see clearly what he does NOT want to become, and we can hardly blame him. We can also see, perhaps clearer than Billy, that there aren’t many options for a kid like this in a town like that. Set in Barnsley, in the heart of Northern England’s mining areas, and populated with a slew of nonprofessional actors with broad Yorkshire accents (I highly recommend watching with English subtitles), the film paints a recognizable picture of working-class doldrums, a cyclical system that views children as workers in the making, stifling any genuine spark of creativity. All of the sociopolitical undertones and message-making would fall flat if not for a very strong emotional underpinning in the relationship between Billy and his kestrel (a kind of hawk). It all rests on the absolutely mindblowing performance of nonactor David Bradley—a kid from Barnsley hand-picked by the filmmakers. At every point that the story threatens to sink into sentimental hogwash, it steers us instead on a steady course through a very mature, yet very simple celebration of life, of youthful joy, of the beauty of nature, and all through Billy’s eyes. To Billy, Kes is the only beautiful thing in his life, and he chooses to spend his energies fostering this life, training the bird, and developing a rapport with this stoic, unknowable specimen of the natural world, and rejecting what he sees as the death and decay of the grid pushed on him by the school system, the job board, and ultimately, the mine (“I’m not goon down pit!”). As with all of Loach’s films I’ve seen so far (only 5 of about two dozen feature films), I could understand how someone could see it as a one-sided, leftist generalization and demonization of those aspects of society that the filmmakers find objectionable. Other than the one sympathetic teacher, the film shows no rays of light for Billy, save for the subtle, incidental kindness shown between Billy and his working-class neighbors who all know him—the kindly butcher, the milkman, etc. But, again, as with all Loach films, the director seems to know how to strike the right balance between what can seem at times to be a very obvious social message and a very solid, universal humanism. Loach strives to populate these films with real human beings as much as possible, and in Kes, that comes through as good as in any film I’ve ever seen, rivaled only by other Loach films.

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3 responses to “Kes (UK, 1969)

  1. Pingback: Route Irish (UK/France/Belguim, 2010) | Offhand Reviews·

  2. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2012 | Offhand Reviews·

  3. Pingback: Ratcatcher (UK, 1999) | Offhand Reviews·

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