The beloved British drama Kes throbs with a simple truthfulness. It's a classic boy-and-his-pet tale, with all the emotional purity that entails, but director Ken Loach (The Wind That Shakes the Barley) adds his own genius to the ingenuousness. In only his sophomore feature, Loach shows his complimentary interest in documentary-influenced social realism and the improvisational search for the authentic.
Adapted from Barry Hines' novel A Kestrel for a Knave, Kes shows rare compassion as it stands by the side of its humble protagonist, fourteen-year-old Billy Casper (David Bradley) and cuts right to the heart of the working-class experience. Life in the public-housing estate is endlessly dreary for Billy: his single mother (Lynne Perrie) has too much on her mind to be emotionally present to her son, and Billy's bullying older brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher) is a cauldron of resentment, not least because he's forced to share a bed with Billy. Their coal-mining town of Barnsley—where the film was shot on location—has a way of turning hearts black with hopelessness. Mrs. Casper despairs at her options down at the local watering hole, and the perpetually on-edge Jud sees her there, narrowly bearing the inevitability of his life by boozing and chasing birds (of the female variety). When a meandering Billy spies an actual bird, a small falcon known as a kestrel, he finds a much more humane way of compensating for his misery.
The dreadful authority figures that surround Billy—from his tin-pot tyrant tyrant brother on up to headmaster Mr. Gryce (Bob Bowes)—can't or won't see his good heart. Still, it's devastatingly apparent to the audience (Billy's rare bursts of anger are purely self-defensive), which is allowed to share in the intimacy between the boy and the bird, which he names "Kes" and determines to train and nurture. There's a supreme irony in the scene that depicts a library turning away a boy who wants a book to read (I once had a similar experience with an even more petty school librarian), which directly leads to Billy filching a book on falconry from the local bookstore. In literally vintage Loach fashion, this sequence of events echoes the ways the most callous civil systems encourage moral compromise, belittling people instead of helping them to rise. Loach looks at several other wholly plausible iterations of the same phenomenon: punishment by caning, the systematic p.e. embarrassments Billy's subjected to by coach Mr. Sugden (Brian Glover, in a brilliant love-to-hate-him turn), and an unsympathetic meeting with a youth employment officer (Bernard Atha).
Billy Elliot is, of course, a latter-day version of Kes (down to the boy's name), substituting dance and a sunnier outlook for Kes and Loach's unblinking observation of the universal rather than the exceptional experience (credit, too, the lovely, limber photography of Chris Menges, who also shot The Mission). Loach's almost entirely nonprofessional cast works brilliantly in concert with his vision, and none more so than the preternaturally unmannered Bradley. Loach's scrupulousness and unvarnished approach brush against cliché, but there's nothing implausible in the story, including one young teacher (Colin Welland's Mr. Farthing) that, like Billy, hasn't yet been ground down. Mr. Farthing's sympathy affords Billy something of what he's been missing from a father, including praise for his talent, and encouragement that his instincts are not foolish but good. Still, it's the healing love and mutual respect of boy and bird that most touch the heart. For the most part, Kes excels in its understatement, perhaps especially in its ending, which has the quiet patience to live in the moment of consequence rather than make a show of it or backpedal into unearned comfort.
Criterion delivers Kes in a gorgeous special edition Blu-ray. The image quality is superb, keeping all of the character of the film (including lush grain) and yielding considearbly more accurate color and detail than any previous home-video issue. Unlike earlier transfers, this one doesn't suffer from compression artifacts: no distractions to the warm and lively image. The audio options include English LPCM 1.0 (the filmmaker's original soundtrack, with production dialogue) and English Dolby Digital 1.0 (the internationally release soundtrack, with postsync dialogue). Though both are excellent archival tracks, well preserved, opt for the former, which best serves the filmmaker's intent.
First among the invaluable bonus features is “Making Kes” (44:54, HD), a fantastic, Criterion-produced 2010 documentary with Ken Loach, Tony Garnett, Chris Menges, and David Bradley. Also included is a 1993 episode of The South Bank Show (49:07, HD) with Loach, Garnett, filmmakers Stephen Frears and Alan Parker, actor Ricky Tomlinson, Jim Allen, and N.U.M. president Arthur Scargill. The former gives a full perspective on the film, from its making to its legacy, while the latter gives a detailed portrait of Loach as a man and as a filmmaker.
Criterion has also seen fit to include Loach's 1966 BBC telefilm Cathy Come Home (1:17:15, HD), which comes with a 2011 “Afterword” (11:33, HD) by film writer Graham Fuller. Last up is the “Trailer” (2:56, HD) for Kes. The full-color, twenty-page booklet includes a marvelous critical essay by Graham Fuller, as well as images from the film, credits and tech specs.
This one will be a hit for the older and the budding cineastes in your family, and Criterion has done its usual exemplary work in digitally preserving it, amid museum-quality context.
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