A true British classic, Ken Loach’s 1969 debut feature Kes has been digitally restored for a rerelease this week. Adapted from Barry Hines novel A Kestrel for a Knave, the film explores the delicate relationship of a neglected adolescent boy’s experience of finding and taming, an equally isolated young kestrel.
Now a figurehead for British social realism, they don’t come much more British than Loach or Kes. That said, one of the film’s greatest strengths is that it doesn’t dwell too extensively on its abundance of grit and grime at the expense of its story. The performance of non-actor David Bradley, at the time himself living as part of a working-class Yorkshire family, as the film’s protagonist Billy, registers with an authenticity that goes beyond anything to be gleaned from certain documentary practices.
Perhaps the scene that most sticks in the mind after viewing, is a school football training session. Perfectly encapsulating many of the ideas that run throughout Kes, the reasonably lengthy scene sees a comically stern P.E. teacher bully the lads into sharing his fantasies of playing for Manchester United. The coach’s pathetic disciplinarian approach toward achieving a kind of wish fulfilment, demonstrates the hopelessness that pervades over Billy and his peers.
Living with a disinterested mother and brother, Billy is truly a captive of his environment, one that Loach never fails to reassure us, is likely to be imprisoned for life. Which is why, witnessing his coming out of his shell as it were, when he discovers a passion for training his kestrel and educating himself about birds and falconry, is such a simple but rewarding spectacle to watch. Needless to say, Kes’ conclusion can be seen a mile off, and Loach offers us no comfort before the credits roll.
While it’s sort of nice for some to get the chance to see Apocalypse Now (1979) or Back to the Future (1985) on the big screen, those films don’t require any amount of help in securing audiences for the long foreseeable future. But the wave of British rereleases like Kes and those coming out from Ealing Studios recently, on the other hand, may not be as exciting, intense, or electrifying as other films from our past, present and no doubt, future, but they’re important products from a time when our sense of national identity was firmly rooted in our own film-making practices and stories.
Not that I’d wish to see this kind of approach make a return, necessarily. The value of Kes’ importance within the history of our national cinema can still be seen at work today within the continuing trend of British social realism. Outstanding films like Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009), Shane Meadows’ This is England (2006) and even the work of Noel Clark all aim to deliver Kes levels of realism built around issues of identity. Which, amid a cinema-going culture that increasingly manages to find sustenance through the act of ferociously gorging itself to the point in which a film like Avatar (2009) is a benchmark of a successful product, is highly commendable.