Aside from the furore surrounding Ken Loach’s latest Palme d’Or winning polemic on the inhumanities of the British welfare system, I, Daniel Blake, the re-release of his iconic 1969 drama Kes is a chance to explore a more poetic side of the prolific social realist filmmaker. Set in Barnsley in a dysfunctional, single-parent working class household, the narrative concerns itself with the youngest member of the family, Billy (David Bradley), and his bittersweet attempt to escape his bleak and downtrodden existence by capturing and training a wild kestrel.
Billy is by no means a bad child, but his lack of interest in either academics or physical education mark him out as a rotten apple to the teaching staff at school. Caned by the headmaster (Bob Bowes) for falling asleep in assembly despite being woken up at six by his brutish older half-brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher) and doing an entire paper round before school, he’s further brutally humiliated by the football instructor (Brian Glover) for conceding a goal and not being able to afford a kit. These incidents are portrayed with a detached gravity that transcends pathos, the result of both Loach’s restrained direction and Bradley’s quietly expressive face.
At times though, in his desire to prove a point, Loach does go slightly overboard with the school staff’s sadistic behaviour; they seem a little too draconian, even for 1969. Kes is also intriguing as a portrait of a bygone Northern England in which the mining industry still provided status and security. Jud earns a living in the “pits” while Billy is encouraged to do the same by a visiting youth employment officer, and one cannot but reflect on what the loss of such jobs has done to these communities (the answer is well-known). But Kes is at its best when documenting Billy’s relationship with his kestrel and his forays into the surrounding countryside; moments when he feels truly liberated from the suffocating structures of authority – at home, at school, and in the workplace.
Worlds away from the drab colour schemes typical of social realism, Loach’s palette bursts with the lush greens of the neighbouring fields and forests, while the accompanying flute melodies on the score gently reinforce the pastoral ambience. As in the films of Bresson (an acknowledged influence on Loach), non-professionals fill almost every role, giving Kes a strong sense of local authenticity. Practically every character is unsympathetic towards Billy, apart from teacher Mr Farthing (Colin Welland), who provides one of the film’s most tender scenes when he gets the former to talk about his kestrel in front of the entire class. It’s the only time we ever see Billy flourish in the classroom, and yet all it took was getting him to speak about what he loves.
Despite this breakthrough, things end on a solemn note, leaving one more concerned than reassured about Billy’s future. Kes‘ Victorian-esque portrayal of the state schooling system can seem rather distant to us today, given how dramatically best practice in education has changed, and as mentioned some of the teachers behave almost implausibly cruelly. But in its depiction of a gentle soul straight-jacketed by rigid societal norms and expectations, Kes has universal appeal.