Cast: David Bradley, Freddie Fletcher, Lynne Perrie, Colin Welland, Brian Glover, Bob Bowes, Bernard Atha
Set in the industrialised north of England, Billy Casper finds and trains a kestrel falcon in his spare time – an escapism he desires as a result from the bullying and beatings he receives from home and school.
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If you look at the filmography of director Ken Loach, you’ll see a very impressive back catalogue of social-realism cinema that has extended to his work right up to the modern day. Ken Loach is undoubtedly one of Britain’s greatest filmmakers and the master of the ‘kitchen sink drama’. He is a relentless movie maker that has not stopped working. Here we are looking at one of Loach’s most famous films.
In the 60’s there was a cinematic movement in the UK known as the British New Wave. This new movement focused mainly on the industrialised and working class north of England and took a social realist direction to British filmmaking. We can choose to look at ‘Kes’ (Dir. Ken Loach - based on the novel ‘Kestrel for a Knave’ by Barry Hines) as the epitome of the movement.
Set in the industrialised northern Yorkshire town of Barnsley, the film follows a number of weeks in the life of Billy Casper (David Bradley) – a very poor 15 year old boy from a working class family. He struggles in school; he is subject to bullying by pupils and injustice by the majority of those who teach there. His home life isn’t much better as he emotionally un-nurtured by his mother (Lynne Perrie) and physically abused by his older brother, Jud (Freddie Fletcher).
Not wanting to work in the mines when he leaves school –like his brother- Billy finds/takes a young Kestrel Falcon by ruins in a nearby field, deciding to keep and train the falcon in his spare time. The relationship between Billy and Kes becomes strong and symbolically mirrors Billy’s desire to leave this deprived town - a town that gives him no real hope of a great future.
There is a wonderful scene in the film where class pupils - even those who are foe to Billy - are sat in silence and entirely engaged to Billy’s every word as he is stood at the front of the class explaining how he found, feeds, trains and flies his Kestrel Falcon. Pupils’ converse with Billy as he shines in this scene and English teacher Mr. Farthing (played wonderfully by Colin Welland) makes note of Billy’s enthusiasm for his falcon. It seems like Loach is playing with the notion of Billy’s Kestrel Falcon and escaping the town for a brighter future; a sentiment that this young generation of pupils all share.
This being said, scenes with Billy and his falcon only take up a minority of the film (whilst being the most beautiful and the most heartbreaking). Billy is encouraged as his English teacher, Mr. Farthing, takes an interest in Kes and Billy learns to take his existence and to turn it into something positive. But will this sentiment last?
This film is so brutal at times and it many cases it’s shocking: throttling, canings and beatings and are all very much prominent in this very gritty depiction of northern, working class life. However, ‘Kes’ is wonderfully juxtaposed with moments of warmth and humour. The P.E scene - where Billy and his classmates play football outdoors with a very sour and didactic Mr. Sugden (Brian Glover) – is a perfect illustration of this. The film inserts this wonderful component of wit within an overall very bittersweet film. This film will make you smile and laugh a lot (although it is a deep, dark place where its humour derives).
Loach has adopted a great guerrilla aesthetic to ‘Kes’ that really complements the content. This does result in the sound quality being of a lower standard. Together with the very strong south Yorkshire accents and dialect, you may find yourself repeating the words ‘what did they just say?’ (I would particularly find it interesting how audiences outside of the UK respond to this). But Loach's masterpiece outshines this minor sound-related quibble. Loach delivered a very funny, yet emotionally devastating film with elements of social realism that are really hard hitting even today. It is a wonderful film and Loach continues to work in this manner today.