Director: Ken Loach
Screenwriters: Barry Hines, Ken Loach, Tony Garnett
Starring: David Bradley, Freddie Fletcher, Lynne Perrie, Colin Welland, Brian Glover, Bob Bowes
Over 50 years have passed since director Ken Loach announced himself as the would-be voice of the underpriviliged Briton, his second feature Kes being a timeless account of downtrodden and forgotten about people and the places in which they live. This delicately told tale about a boy and his reared kestrel has long been understood as encapsulating the hopelessness of empoverished adolescence, though it’s the way in which Kes remains relevant, nay vital, to contemporary political discourse that is the true gage not only of this film’s immense quality but of the UK’s distinct lack of progress in the half a century since. In a first world country with over 4 million children living beneath the poverty line, Kes is sadly as relevant now as it ever has been, the messages within it ever-powerful and emotive, the movie a sharpshooter-level indictment of historical classism and its remaining power within British society.
“They say it’s a pet. It int a pet, sir. People come up to me and say “int it tame?” It int tame, sir. They can’t be tamed. They’re manned. They’re wild and fierce and not bothered about anybody. Not bothered about me. That’s what makes it great.”
The love between the young protagonist and his bird is one of duality. The Kestrel, for him, represents freedom, enlightenment, bravery and even grace, the boy making note of how you can’t hear the bird when it swoops, saying that it’s as if it demands you pay it respect. Yet the boy takes the bird from its nest in its adolescence and he proceeds to domesticate it through a training regime in which he encourages the bird to perform tasks (such as flying to him from a fence-post) for food, though only after he has led the bird to the point of starvation. The boy, Billy Casper (David Bradley), wishes for the ability to fly out of his nowhere town to chances anew, but he’s held back by the empoverishment of his family, the ruling class dictatorship over success and his need to feed himself; the very structures he sets in place for his bird.
Billy lives in a small village designated for working class and underclass people by the local council, at school he’s trained to adhere to a regime and abide by a strict routine, and he and his family are forced into the lowest paid jobs in order to put just a small amount of food on the table, while his bird is trapped in a bird cage in the garden, forced to adhere to strict rules and routine in order to survive, and then forced to work for just a small amount of food. The effect of these mirrored existences is devastating.
Loach has, over many films including recent releases Sorry We Missed You and particularly his Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, used this technique of duality and mirrored existences to emphasise key political and ideological points, and in Kes it seems to be at the forefront of every creative decision.
The boy’s slightly older, more aggressive, mysoginystic, insecure and old-before-his-time brother is himself a mirror; a mirror to Billy of what he can become and a vision to us of who Billy is likely to change into. The brother, Judd (played by Freddie Fletcher), is a miner with a poor reputation at the school Billy now attends and a fondness for physical violence. Like society has done to his family and Billy has done to his bird, Judd uses the qualities at his disposal (in this case being physically larger, the family’s central bread-winner, the so-called “man of the house”) to manipulate, restrict and at times bully Billy, though just as Billy is not to blame in his almost accidental dictatorship over his beloved Kestrel, Judd isn’t necessarily to blame here, Loach taking the time to follow his life just enough to gain an understanding of why he acts as he does, the clear villain of the piece being a lack of equality in contemporary british culture and the violence being a clear reaction to that.
The gross unfairness of the system and culture in which the child grows up in is played out, metaphorically and physically, through a game of football in a school Physical Education (P.E.) lesson, as Billy and his friends are subjected to the will of their teacher who bends and twists the rules with each blow of his whistle, turning the odds in his team’s favour and ensuring his dominance in, again, a useful mirror to society’s ruling classes. In perhaps one of the film’s only moments of hope and triumph, the teacher’s team is defeated, the school children running indoors as 2-1 victors in their mock FA Cup 5th Round tie, their shared joy held on the face of their less than pleased elder who stomps back to the changing rooms with little to no joy in his Manchester United inspired performance left for him to hold. The cruel reality here being that the victory is one Billy does not taste, his being the team that loses, his decisive moment in the match being the moment he misses the all-important save – his failure in performance soon punished thereafter with the demand that he take a shower, one the teacher sabotages to be freezing cold as he berates the school child’s performance. It is this that is the very representation of the upper class earning their stripes, asserting their dominance, empowering themselves at the expense of others, all to maintain a false sense of ego, pride and stability at the top of the food chain.
In the very next scene a child is wrongly accused of coughing during assembly and is subsequently caned by the headmaster in a punishing scene in which at least 3 of the 5 punished boys are entirely innocent, but none are guilty enough to receive such a beating. It’s the vision of a cold, unfair world, but one that rings all too true to children not only of Billy’s generation or those that came before, but those of the people in the decades to come too; the physical abuse long-since outlawed but the same unfair, dictatorial approach to schooling remaining in much of working class education in particular.
Ironically, Billy is given his chance to shine by a teacher – a mirror of what the P.E. teacher could be, a man with more acceptance and tolerance than his contemporaries, a vision of a fairer Great Britain and the ideal of what we should each aim to become. Billy is asked to talk about his “hawk”, and is asked to write key words onto the black board in chalk. Loach lingers in the mid-shot, surveying the room, capturing the interest and the relation each child can feel towards Billy and his bird, cutting to close-ups of a number of Billy’s classmates to emphasise how their usually jovial and talkative characters have become glued to Billy’s story. Then, like a bang in the head, Loach finally moves into a close-up of the hero, his downtrodden, reserved and very straightforward way of presenting his passion making for one of the saddest moments imaginable as he looks out of the window towards pastures new that shall never come; the horrors of a life beaten to a pulp by societal inequality etched in his face as the camera forces us to acknowledge that this will be his only moment in the sun.
“They’re not bothered about us and we’re not bothered about them” Billy soon thereafter exclaims to the same teacher, the reality of which rings through your ears. Billy is alone. His destiny is mapped onto a world of dictatorial rule and the violent reactions it brings, this representation completing its journey from relateable youth to devastating truth.
Perhaps no one in the history of cinema has been able to capture the loneliness of the working/under-class like Ken Loach, and the sadness his film radiates here is incomparable in his or any other filmmaker’s work. To many Brits, whether they be from the film’s setting of Yorkshire or elsewhere, Kes is an undisputed classic, and even 50 years on it remains a remarkable achievement.
Kes (1969) is one of the premiere British films ever made. A bold, critical, moving masterpiece from one of the true masters of the form.