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With: David Bradley, Freddie Fletcher, Lynne Perrie, Colin Welland, Brian Glover, Bob Bowes, Bernard Atha, Laurence Bould, Joey Kaye, Ted Carroll, Robert Naylor, Agnes Drumgoon, George Speed, Desmond Guthrie, Zoe Sutherland
Written by: Barry Hines, Ken Loach, Tony Garnett, based on a book by Barry Hines
Directed by: Ken Loach
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language, nudity and some teen smoking (2009 rating)
Running Time: 111
Date: 11/01/1969

Kes (1969)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Hard Hawk Life

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Though Ken Loach had worked in television for a number of years, Kes was his first official feature film. It has come to be regarded as a classic, and even a children's favorite, though it's hard to imagine today's kids sitting still for it. It's grim and rambling, and without a clear victory. Yet it's one of the most powerful coming-of-age stories ever told and contains passages of great beauty.

Based on Barry Hines' book "A Kestrel for a Knave," Loach nonetheless shoots the film like a documentary, simply observing long sequences of the hero at school, suffering the indignities of both the classroom and the football field. Billy Casper (David Bradley) is a skinny kid who has a paper route before school, and is not above nicking a bottle of milk from the back of a truck. We learn that he was once involved in a gang and is now trying to go straight. He's not a particularly good student, nor is he good at sports, and he's prone to trouble. Outside of school, he discovers a kestrel nest, and decides to catch one and train it. He tries to check out a book from the library, but is rudely turned away when he doesn't have his mum's signature. So he nicks a book from a shop.

In any other movie about a boy who trains a kestrel, we might expect that the boy finds his "wings," so to speak. He would learn a life lesson, come of age and use his newfound wisdom and experience to solve all the problems in his life. But in the grand scheme of things, perhaps less than a quarter of the film's running time is actually devoted to the kestrel. We learn more information about its training from a day in school (the students are asked to discuss "facts"), than we do from actually seeing anything.

Although, rather than a betrayal of storytelling, Loach's approach feels more honest and more political. In real life, training a kestrel probably won't solve anyone's problems. In fact, the bulk of the film seems to be devoted to the efforts of adults to "train" young people. Not only do they fail, but also they never seem to be very happy about anything. One long sequence is devoted to a day in gym class, in which a mean, petty, blowhard teacher plays football (soccer) with the boys. He cheats and gets away with it, punishes the boys for his mistakes, and sulks when he loses. He continues to take out his frustration on poor Billy back in the locker room, making him shower in cold water.

In one touching sequence, one of Billy's teachers comes to his house to watch the kestrel feeding. He's in awe of Billy's achievement and of the power of the bird. Together they sit and talk about a kind of mutual respect toward the dignified creature; it's a respect that exists nowhere else in the film. In fact, Billy's fate seems to be shaped and sealed regardless of his tiny moments of escape and victory with the kestrel. His bastard of an older brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher) works in the mines, and Billy seems likewise destined to work there. When a Employment Officer asks if he has any hobbies, Billy doesn't even mention the kestrel.

Still, none of this dulls the heartbreaking power of the ending. After all the commentary on human behavior and the state of Great Britain in the 1960s, the simple tragedy at the end of the film cuts through everything and goes straight to the heart.

The Criterion Collection has released Kes on a new DVD and a gorgeous Blu-Ray. It comes with Loach's original audio track, which is somewhat incomprehensible to Americans, and subtitles are necessary. It also comes with the dubbed international release soundtrack, in which the dialogue is spoken more clearly and with more enunciation. There's a new making-of featurette, a 1993 television profile of Loach's career, and an early, grittily realistic made-for-TV film by Loach, Cathy Come Home (1966). Critic Graham Fuller provides the liner notes essay.

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