Kes (1969)

Ken Loach | 1hr 52min

There is a quiet, simple dichotomy at the heart of Kes to which the complexities of life in its 1960s Yorkshire working-class community are boiled down. Ken Loach approaches this not with the intent to distort reality, but rather to filter it through a singular perspective – for fifteen-year-old Billy Casper, every force in his life is on one side of a tug-o-war between subjugation and freedom. Sometimes people surprise him and reveal nuances he doesn’t expect, but those instances aren’t so common as to majorly impact his worldview. For the most part, his teachers, employment officers, and family are boxing him into rigid structures he doesn’t quite fit. In his young falcon, Kes, he doesn’t just find a genuine passion. He finds a set of values he can aspire to.

“Hawks can’t be tamed. They’re manned. It’s wild and it’s fierce and it’s not bothered about anybody.”

Using children as tragic representations of innocence in unjust societies has been at the core of neorealism since the Italians took to it in the 40s, but with the additional symbol of Kes as a being of pure, fearless independence, Loach sets up magnificent stakes to Billy’s emotional arc. As he stands on the precipice of adulthood, being forced to consider manual labour and office jobs he has no interest in, we recognise the immense fragility of his innocence, and the significance of Kes in preserving that.

Wide open fields play host to this bonding between a boy and his animal companion, a very different look to the dirtied school yards and buildings.

The time we spend in open fields with the only sign of civilisation being the town shoved far in the background are the most freeing in the film. The image of Kes flying through the sky without confines makes for a striking contrast to the constant suggestions that Billy go into coal mining after school, submerging himself beneath the ground in confined spaces, though these offerings of escapism are only ever fleeting. Loach is at his strongest when depicting the gritty detail of this blue-collar South Yorkshire town, letting its smokestacks and industrial structures tower over Billy in some of the film’s strongest compositions, while he lingers in the foreground trying to find peace among secluded bushes and trees. The impoverished but narrow-minded community that fill in this harsh, rundown setting are just as vivid in their authenticity, the thick brogue of these mostly non-professional actors rendering some lines almost incomprehensible.

The industrial mining structures looming in backgrounds – a raw sense of setting in superb compositions.

Within the rigorous education system of 1960s England, Loach surrounds Billy with a staff of teachers as regressively strict as they are sadistic, furiously wondering why their disciplinary tactics are not motivating the students to succeed. Child actor David Bradley is a consistently strong force all through Kes, but it is especially in these interactions where we see the struggle of a boy disillusioned by the path they are trying to set him on. When adults lecture and reprimand him, there is a visible emotional detachment on his face, and when he is forced to speak, he can’t bring himself to make eye contact. He is not looking to cause trouble, but he is ready to defend himself against accusations of laziness, and like any other teenage boy he is easily distracted, climbing goal posts during P.E. and daydreaming in the middle of class.

The students around him also assert their independence in small, rebellious acts, selling cigarettes between themselves even as the headmaster rails against their misbehaviour and complains about their generation. For the P.E. teacher, disobedience is simply an excuse to enact brutal and degrading punishments on kids who make easy targets, turning on the cold water while Billy is in the shower after class and refusing to let him out.

Loach’s visual style doesn’t often hit you with jaw-dropping compositions, but it is minimalistic and practical – authenticity in the streaks and poor maintenance of worn-down buildings.

In the school’s English teacher though, there seems to be a rare glimpse of hope that Billy might just be understood by someone else the way he understands Kes. Mr Farthing is not a character we expect such genuine compassion from, and yet as he makes an effort outside of school hours to visit his student and learn about his interests, we also begin to see a brighter future for Billy. But such optimism is not destined to last long in this stifling environment. Loach is dedicated to cinematic realism, but he also recognises the power that his symbols hold, and in bringing the two together, the cruel unpredictability of life ultimately destroys any faith we place in the latter. In watching this boy’s youthful idealism seep away with each harsh blow, Kes becomes a heartbreakingly bitter drama, raw with the pain of realising that there is no great liberty in becoming an adult – just another few decades of soul-sucking, arbitrary social structures.

Kes is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel, and to rent or buy on iTunes and Amazon Prime Video.

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