UK (1969) Dir. Ken Loach
Neo Realism is usually associated with Italian cinema and the works of Vittori De Sica et al, but that doesn’t mean other countries haven’t made a significant contribution to this simple but affecting milieu. There is something about working class Britain that lends itself to this subgenre of cinema and one of the masters of this is Ken Loach.
Based on the novel A Kestrel For A Knave by Barry Hines, Loach takes us to Barnsley for his second film, where we meet 15 year-old Billy Casper (David Bradley), a young tearaway living with his mum (Lynne Perrie) and bullying older brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher). At school, Billy is often picked on for his dishevelled appearance and for staying away from a gang of troublesome kids he used to hang with.
Whilst out walking in the nearby woods, Billy spots a hawk flying overhead and traces its nest inside a wall of a farm that is about to be knocked down, so he rescues one of the babies. Stealing a book about falconry, Billy rears the bird, which he names Kes, and finds solace and joy in training it and creating a bond of trust and love with it. But, like most things, the vagaries of life get in the way.
For modern audiences Ken Loach will be recognised for his shaming indictment of the current benefits systems in I, Daniel Blake, yet whilst almost fifty years separate that film and Kes, it is evident Loach hasn’t lost any of his bite. The narrative structure may be different in that Kes is more freeform whilst Blake has more of a sequential story to tell, but both engage the audience in how real they feel.
Even though Kes predates my own school days by over a decade, there is still something rather nostalgic about much of the scenes based at Billy’s local comprehensive, perhaps surprisingly so given the time gap, which I imagine wouldn’t be so drastic if a pupil from today get see a classroom from 2009. I may have been educated here in the South but so much of the Barnsley school life depicted here was familiar to me.
This isn’t limited to school either – sights such as young toddlers sitting around in their underwear on a front doorstep and kids playing football in the roads were as much a part of my daily life as they “oop North” as they say. The accents might be different but the general substance is the same, though it could be argued there is a problem when one can still find similarities between 1969 Britain and 1982 Britain.
Billy was a young lad trying to reform himself after bringing trouble to his home, though some habits die hard (he tells his newsagent employer he hasn’t stolen in ages whilst stealthily sneaks a chocolate bar into his newspaper delivery bag). However, given his meagre home life, funded by whatever salary his mum brings home with no little help from Jud’s wage as a miner, this would appear to be more about survival for Billy than petty theft.
Soon Kes becomes Billy’s top priority and consumes his every thought to the detriment of his education which wasn’t exactly stellar to begin with. Billy’s borderline dismissal of planning for the future might seem nihilistic, despite being resolute he won’t work in the mines, but the Barnsley presented to us here isn’t exactly one that offers much promise for the young.
Maybe it isn’t entirely Billy’s fault – his father left the family years ago, Jud is hectoring thug, his mother sees him as a lost cause, and his classmates and some teachers tease and torment him. The lone exception is Mr. Farthing (Colin Welland), who actually pays attention to Billy’s enthusiasm regarding Kes and offers him full encouragement, unlike headmaster Mr. Gryce (Bob Bowes) who canes one boy for coughing during assembly!
Ironically, the standout scene of the entire film for this writer involves another pompous educator, sports teacher Mr. Sugden (Brian Glover). With typical delusion of grandeur, Sugden refs a football game with himself as a team captain, using his size, strength, and abuse of power to steer the game to his advantage. It’s a well-worn trope these days but even so, this is 10 minutes of comedy gold to show how it is done.
The nature of the story does presage the fact the dour drama will outweigh the resonant levity, and Loach is forced to take a sharp turn into darker direction for the final act, a veritable compendium of heartbreak and shameful disregard for other people’s feelings. It was a case of “six of one and half a dozen of the other” but without the extant enmity between the brothers it might have been a less destructive climax.
A upsetting as it is to watch, the theme about being a product of your environment is all too clear, going as far as to imply this was Billy’s destiny, and maybe that of Jud and the other kids too. Had their father stayed around maybe the family dynamic would have been better, maybe Billy would have had a brother who’d stick up for him, maybe his job prospects would be better – not that life has any consideration for maybes.
Loach chose all non-actors for his cast, most of whom never acted again. David Bradley had a long career but I doubt he’ll ever shake off being Billy, and nor should he after such a raw and naturally charismatic performance; Lynne Perrie went onto star in Coronation Street, Colin Welland won an Oscar for writing Chariots Of Fire and the inimitable Brian Glover became the go to Yorkshireman in film and TV.
Perhaps the saddest thing about Kes is that after 60 years a lot of what it relays is still relevant today, making this a timeless piece of British cinema for the wrong reasons, yet is a seminal film for all the right reasons.