Kes (1970)

Arguably Ken Loach’s masterpiece of 1970s British working-class social realism, with an absolutely stunning performance by the 14-year old non-professional actor David Bradley.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Dir. Ken Loach
1970 | UK | Drama | 99 mins | 1.66:1 | English
NC16 (passed clean) for language, nudity and some teen smoking

Cast: David Bradley, Brian Glover, Freddie Fletcher
Plot: A young, English working-class boy spends his free time caring for and training his pet falcon.
Awards: Won 2 BAFTAs – Most Promising Newcomer, Best Supporting Actor; Nom. for 3 BAFTAs – Best Film, Best Direction, Best Screenplay
Source: MGM

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
First Published: 8 Jun 2015
Spoilers: No

It’s only on hindsight that most of us realize that one of the very best, if not the greatest Ken Loach picture is his 1970 film, Kes

Only his second feature after years working on stage and in television, Kes is Loach’s breakthrough film, an astonishing work on the British working-class that has since been regarded as one of the most important entries in the annals of British cinema. 

Grounded in social realism, but disregarding the raw neorealist aesthetic of films of this nature, Loach creates an empathetic look at one boy’s constant scuffles with his dysfunctional family, his bullying peers (and teachers), and the whole British social system that traps the working-class in an endless cycle of near poverty and limited self-agency.

14-year old non-professional actor David Bradley gives an absolutely stunning performance as Billy, the boy in question, who spends his leisure time on a meaningful hobby, tending and training a pet kestrel falcon that he calls Kes. 

“C’mon Kes!”

I think it is not an overstatement to say that Bradley’s performance would rank as one of the top child acting displays in cinema.  He gives Billy a sense of carefreeness, but his character also treads carefully out of fear of authority.  He steals a book on falconry, but becomes ultra-defensive when confronted by his older, aggressive brother. 

Loach’s direction doesn’t make us pity anyone, but he sets us up to accept the circumstances that would befall Billy.  The naturalism of acting, and of shooting on location with natural light, give Kes a visual look that radiates with a warm pastoral glow. 

Two favourite sequences continue to enchant me: the freestyle cinematography (by the great Chris Menges) that follows the kestrel while it soars across the green pastures.  “C’mon Kes!  C’mon Kes!” shouts Billy as he finds fulfillment (and perhaps solace) in training a thing of nature (and of beauty). 

The other sequence is simply pure unadulterated joy – a physical education class with a soccer fanatic teacher who has a major attitude problem.  It is a sequence that will thrill football fans. 

Loach has not come close to delivering as masterful a film as this.  But while he has been a perennial festival darling, many of his films remain inaccessible and unseen.  Thankfully, Kes is well and fine.  It’s quite the privilege to see the excellent restored version on Criterion Collection Blu-ray.

Grade: A




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