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Kes
Director: Ken Loach
Adaptation: Barry Hines and Ken Loach and Tony Garnett (based on the book A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines)
Stars: David Bradley (Billy), Freddie Fletcher (Jud), Lynne Perrie (Mrs. Casper), Colin Welland (Mr. Farthing), Brian Glover (Mr. Sugden), Bob Bowes (Mr. Gryce), Bernard Atha (Youth Employment Officer)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 1970
Country: U.K.
Kes Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Kes On a short list of great child movie performances--a list that would also include Nikolai Burlyayev in Ivan’s Childhood (1962), Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun (1987), Mary Badham in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense (1999), and Jean-Pierre Léaud in The 400 Blows (1959)--one would be hard-pressed to not include David Bradley, the star of Ken Loach’s devastating drama Kes (1970). Plucked from utter obscurity during a casting call at the school where author Barry Hines (whose novel, A Kestrel for a Knave, served as the source material) had once taught and was now being used as a location for the film, Bradley gives a natural, completely convincing performance as Billy Casper, a gangly 14-year-old growing up under social and economic oppression in Barnsley, a northern English mining town.

Kes was Loach’s second feature film after working the previous decade in television, directing increasingly socially minded dramas for the BBC. Loach, a social realist whose fidelity to his strong political views about the exploitation of the underclass is reflected in his austere visual style, handles the film with a deft touch that balances the pathos and inherent sadness of Billy’s predicament without sliding into complete emotional despair (a mistake that the otherwise great Robert Bresson made with Mouchette, another film about a misfortunate 14-year-old caught in a cycle of abuse and exploitation). Make no mistake: Kes paints as bleak a portrait of the British working class and the failure of social systems to protect them as you’re likely to see, but Loach tempers his obvious anger at those failings with a persistent emphasis on the dignity of his central character. While Loach and coscreenwriters Barry Hines and Tony Garnett certainly work in broad strokes in depicting what they see as the social, emotional, and economic villainy at work all around Billy, the film nonetheless manages to evoke an essence of sincerity that is disarming. It also helps that Loach is able to find elements of humor in even the most dire of situations, often using it to cast aspersions on the worst of the worst while mitigating the film’s darkest undertones and keeping it from becoming unrelentingly depressing.

The source book’s title was taken from a 15th-century manuscript that laid out, in descending order, what birds should be associated with different social classes, with an eagle at the top for an emperor and a kestrel hawk at the bottom for a knave (a servant). Billy, who is certainly at the bottom of the social ladder (the very epitome of “the least of these”), finds escape in training a kestrel hawk he has captured. Calling the hawk “Kes,” Billy spends his afternoons in the fields putting into action everything he has read in a book he stole on falconry, demonstrating in no uncertain terms his intelligence and determination, neither of which is given any credence by his teachers, who see him as little more than bothersome and lazy.

Billy lives in a tiny, cramped house with his generally inept mother (Lynne Perrie) and his bitter, coal-mining older brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher). With his unchecked anger, violent tendencies, and misguided narcissism, Jud is perhaps the film’s worst villain, although he is most disturbing as a possible window into Billy’s future, one that could very well be determined for him by the British social system that sends poor children to the coal mines and wealthy children to the universities. Billy’s only escapes are his training sessions with Kes and the attention given to him by Mr. Farthing (Colin Welland), a sympathetic English teacher who represents fundamental human decency in a system that frequently has little room for it. Especially when compared to the school’s headmaster, the grouchy and ill-tempered Mr. Gryce (Bob Bowes), and the school’s sadistic football coach Mr. Snugden (Brian Glover), Mr. Farthing is very nearly a saint if only because he actually recognizes Billy’s potential. Yet, as the film makes distressingly clear, that may not be enough to save Billy from a dour future that is all but sealed for him.

That is not to make Kes sound like a miserable experience. In fact, it is frequently a jubilant film, one that captures the essence of life in all its complexities with both great exhilaration and carefully observed nuance (Loach describes his camera as a “sympathetic observer”). As a profound humanist, Loach sees how individuals can get lost in the larger social system, and he constantly underscores Billy’s domination by the world around him, captured most poignantly in a shot in which Billy sits on a hillside reading a stolen newspaper while a massive factory belches smoke in the background. The industrial north of England had become a popular backdrop for socially conscious “kitchen sink” dramas in the early 1960s such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), and This Sporting Life (1963), but there was something profoundly different about Kes. Rather than being centered on a proverbial “angry young man,” Kes centered on a child whose anger only serves to isolate and disenfranchise him further. In this respect, we must come full circle back to David Bradley, whose performance feels so lived-in, so natural, so unperformed that it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that you have somehow slipped into a documentary, albeit one with a particularly poetic sense of character and place.

Kes Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Kes is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.66:1
Audio
  • English PCM 1.0 monaural (original production track)
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural (post-sync track)
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • Making Kes documentary
  • 1993 episode of The Southbank Show on Ken Loach
  • Cathy Come Home (1966), early television feature by Loach, with an afterword by film writer Graham Fuller
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Essay by film writer Graham Fuller
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateApril 19, 2011

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Kes has undergone a complete digital restoration, partially supported by MGM, who owns the film’s North American rights and whose previous DVD release was available only in the U.K. Using two different elements--the worn and scratched 35mm camera negative and a 35mm color reversal internegative--Criterion has pretty much brought Kes back to life in high-definition, giving us the best presentation the film has seen in decades (the transfer was supervised and approved by director Ken Loach and director of photography Chris Menges). The resulting image is a substantial improvement over screen shots I have seen of MGM’s Region 2 DVD, with much better detail, sharpness, and contrast, but without losing the intentionally rough-looking, slightly grainy texture. Colors look quite a bit different, with much stronger saturation and a slightly different hue that leans more toward the blue-green spectrum. Criterion’s release is also notable for being the first North American video release to include the original soundtrack. Until now, American audiences have only heard a soundtrack that was heavily rerecorded by the original actors in order to tone down the Yorkshire accents and replace some of the more obscure British slang. Criterion gives you the option of either soundtrack, which were mastered at 24-bit from the optical track negative and the original magnetic soundtrack. Both sound good, although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have to turn on the subtitles to understand most of the dialogue.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    Included on the disc is Making Kes, an excellent and comprehensive new 45-minute retrospective documentary that includes interviews with director Ken Loach, cinematographer Chris Menges, producer Tony Garnett, and actor David Bradley; a 1993 episode of The Southbank Show (50 min.) dedicated to Ken Loach, which includes interviews with Loach, Garnett, and filmmakers Stephen Frears and Alan Parker, among others, as well as numerous clips from his many films from the 1960s to the early 1990s; Cathy Come Home (1966), an early television feature by Loach, with an afterword by film writer Graham Fuller; and the original U.S. theatrical trailer.

    Overall Rating: (4)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection


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