As a student who was fond of English at school, I would always try to abide by the rule ‘never judge a book by its cover’. However, when I scanned the summary on the back of the DVD case for Ken Loach’s Kes (1969), I was doubtful I would find any enjoyment in watching a story about a young boy’s friendship with a kestrel. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised.
Set in rural Barnsley in the 1960s, the story is shot against the grim backgrounds and harsh environments of industrial Northern England. Billy Casper (an impressive David Bradley in his first major role) is a ‘beaten down’, deflated teenager who appears to have no interest in education and no real aspirations of his own. Small in stature and low in confidence, Billy seems to think all the future holds for him after finishing school is joining his bullying older brother Judd (Freddie Fletcher) down the mining pit. Between his broken home and his intimidating school environment, life is tough for Billy . That is until he finds and rears a baby kestrel (naming it Kes), who he begins to train. A touching and beautiful storyline emerges until it reaches its abrupt and heartbreaking climax.
Aside from Billy there is only one truly likeable character in the film; an open-minded teacher who sees the boy’s potential despite his rather pathetic and absent demeanour. The environment that surrounds Billy is not only neglectful but at certain points borderlines on abusive. Yet the remarkable thing about this seemingly bleak and depressing film is its ingeniously implanted comedy. A particularly memorable sequence depicts a P.E. lesson where teacher Mr. Sugden (Brian Glover) leads the boys in a game of football. His over-inflated ego leads him to act like he is playing in a cup final for Manchester United, and despite being there to set an example, he cheats his way to victory. However, in a consequent scene Loach once again resets the serious tone with the inclusion of a scene suggesting Sugden has paedophilic tendencies, which serves to remind us of the realities of comprehensive schools in the 1960s.
In terms of mise-en-scene, Loach resists overloading shots with heavy-handed symbolism and blatant metaphorical references. Loach also avoids the hand-held camera aesthetic applied to other ‘realist’ films, yet you can still appreciate the careful camera work. The director’s attention to detail is obvious in his framing techniques – a simple close-up of Billy’s mournful-looking face can speak volumes, as can a medium shot of his weedy stature when compared with the much larger boys at his school. The musical score is similarly moving, as the melodic sounds of a single flute evoke the soaring of the kestrel through the air, whilst the simplicity of the instruments remains faithful to the film’s modest settings.
Having grown up during a time where our cinemas are almost completely dominated by the typically dramatic and sentimental Hollywood movie, Loach’s understated style is refreshing. Whilst the film’s sad ending would leave plenty of opportunity for lesser directors to milk its melodrama and tragedy, Loach’s devotion to gritty realism and relatable content sets Kes apart. His down-to-earth, realistic approach really puts the point across that this was the grim reality of rural life in the sixties, making it all the more effective.
I was interested to learn that several American production companies which called in to help fund the project were unenthusiastic about several aspects, particularly the ending. Pressure was put on Loach to conclude Kes in a more uplifting manner. There was also talk of subtitling the film (fearing audiences would be unable to understand the strong Yorkshire accents). Mercifully, Loach stuck to his filming principles and delivers a realistic slice of rural British life which delivers a much more poignant message than any manufactured, Hollywood genre piece could ever hope to offer. I urge anyone who is dubious of unglamorous and original cinematic style, to give it a chance.