Kes is welcomely re-released this week, as part of the Ken Loach retrospective that celebrates Loach’s 75th birthday. Billy Casper (David Bradley) is a scrawny, pale and hungry-looking boy who looks like he has been yanked by his bony body from the pages of a Dickens novel. Billy’s life mostly concerns petty shoplifting, comics and being anchored in the poverty of the working-class in the mining town of Barnsley, Yorkshire. Billy’s mother (Lynne Perry) displays little more than nonchalance towards him, preferring her admirers in the hope that one of them can aid her in “a nice house and someone to come home to.” Billy’s brother, Jud, sharer of a dirty and small single bed, works in the mines and dominates the home. His father is dead, and school is full of ridicule, torment and a lack of friends. Billy’s life is transformed after watching a kestrel soar majestically above him one day, enthralled by its beauty and freedom. The following morning, awoken up by a very drunk Jud, he returns to the site of the kestrels, and ‘finding’ (a.k.a. stealing it gently from its nest) a baby kestrel, he brings it home for it to become the predominant focus in his life, providing him with meaning, freedom and happiness.
Inevitably it is only a matter of time before society punishes Billy, tumbling back to a socialist tragedy which Loach is intent on depicting in his obligation for social justice. Society is disgusted by Billy’s freedom and his temporary happiness and departure from dogmatic expectation. Atypical of its ‘coming-of-age’ genre where most are resolved with positivity, it concludes with possibly one of the most unsentimental endings. There is no glistening scarlet gloop, no dangling limbs or smattered brains, just this incredibly brutal and moving image of grief against the crackles of sound and the sudden black screen of the credits. One can only hope that Billy remains motivated to break free of his predetermined career in the mines.
Despite the often bleak moments, northern working life is woven with humour in Kes, especially from Mr Sugden (Brian Glover) the P.E teacher who mistakenly thinks Billy uses his poverty and lack of kit as a means to escape the cold and mud. Sugden’s lives vicariously through his football matches with students, deluded in daydreams of being Bobby Charlton in his replica Manchester United kit to make up for his failed career as a footballer. As society also didn’t permit him to achieve his life dreams, Sugden punishes those that try to damage his delusions.
Based on the novel A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines, Loach’s adaptation resists the strong dependence upon the narrative. Kes was shot on a very small budget, with mostly unprofessional actors and instead of dictating to the audience what they should witness and feel, the story is permitted to transport its viewers through the naturalist observation into the life of Billy, showing a working class life and oppression, instead of telling. Although Kes seems to predominate narrowly upon its protagonist, Loach opens up and offers a depth to society and working-class northern England. The confined, class-based education systems, cruel, sadistic and failing, are run by mostly unhappy and unsatisfied individuals transferring their own misery and nonchalance onto others (perhaps an antithesis to todays education system?) Everyone fails Billy wonderfully; the schools guidance councillor (Bernard Atha) lets Billy to escape his office instead of ensuring him some kind of future after school; Billy’s mother, brother and teachers consider him a “hopeless case.” Mr. Farthing (Colin Weiland) offers Billy the only piece of hope, aside from Kes, encouraging and coaxing his awkward yet zealous monologue that wholly captivates the class (and audience.)
Kes‘s restoration has lost none of its potency 40 years after its original release. Its graininess has been reduced and importance and poignancy of colour emphasised. The greens of the foreground, of the beautiful northern countryside are more vivid and lush, Billy’s childhood still holding hope is strongly contrasted against the landscape of the industrial North; the shades of grey, of the smoke, dirt and the strong blacks of slag embody Billy’s ever emerging future of a bleak life in Barnsley.
A poignant and vital re-release.