UK Release Date: 7th November 2016
Runtime: 109 minutes
Director: Ken Loach
Writer: Ken Loach, Barry Hines, Tony Garnett
Starring: David Bradley, Freddie Fletcher, Lynne Perrie, Colin Welland, Brian Glover, Bob Bowes
Synopsis: A young boy from a disadvantaged household in northern England finds a reason to be happy when he begins to care for and train a kestrel.
The name of Ken Loach is everywhere this year thanks to the remarkable success of his politically potent benefits drama I, Daniel Blake. At the age of 80, Loach is still one of the most renowned and relevant filmmakers working in the UK and this is a great time to look back at his past work. His solid debut film Poor Cow got a Blu-ray release earlier this year and it is now followed by Kes, which is often considered Loach’s best work. Unfortunately, as a first-time viewer, the film failed to resonate with me as much as it did for those who saw it back in the 1960s.
Billy (David Bradley) is a Barnsley lad, bullied at school and also victimised at home by his older half-brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher). One day, he discovers a young kestrel and decides to train the bird as a pet. His relationship with the bird give him a way to spend his time, away from his troubling family and school life. This brings him out of his shell and gives him a focus that allows him to form a friendship with kindly English teacher Mr Farthing (Colin Welland).
There’s always a certain amount of baggage when you watch a film deemed to be a “classic” for the first time. Having experienced some of Loach’s edgier work, I found Kes to be a little too gentle and meandering to have the punch of Poor Cow or I, Daniel Blake. There’s definitely a sense of class war politics at the heart of Kes, but that seems to be placed on something of a back-burner in order to tell a tale devoid of narrative focus or intrigue. It’s the scenes in which Billy interacts with his pet that are the strongest moments of Kes, but these are all too brief, especially when they’re compared to the seemingly endless football match that occupies much of the film’s middle third.
Bradley’s performance is an interesting take on youthful naivety and one that deepens and matures along with the film. It’s a compelling take on a character that could easily have been basic and there’s no doubt that Bradley is the best thing about the film. The supporting roles are largely free of impact and, indeed, all of the film’s best moments occur when the focus is places squarely upon Bradley, allowing him to maximise his memorably naturalistic performance.
Unfortunately, the lack of focus on the central man befriends bird narrative leaves Kes lacking in emotional heft. The final twist of the knife is supposed to be an emotional hammer blow, but not enough of the relatively lengthy running time has been attached to developing the central relationship for it to actually work. As a result, the finale feels like an attempt at manipulation rather than a logical resolution to the story.
Loach certainly brings a sense of grit and realism to his northern setting. Like Poor Cow, this is a film set in a version of Britain considerably different to the picture postcard, sanitised version beloved of more conventional filmmakers. His films convey the nation warts and all in order to tell stories about real people. In the case of Kes, though, a little more focus in the storytelling would’ve zeroed in on the genuinely emotional tale worth telling.
The special features include a series of new interviews with Loach and the cast, as well as a great deal of archive material. There’s also a booklet featuring a new, detailed essay on the film and Loach’s career outside of it by critic Philip Kemp.
Pop or Poop?
Kes may be considered a British classic, but it lacks the polish and focus of some of Loach’s later work and, as a result, it suffers in terms of the emotion it is able to evoke in the audience. David Bradley’s performance is memorable and natural, but the film lacks the poignancy that it needed to have in order for the story to work.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
Kes is available on Blu-ray from today courtesy of Eureka Entertainment.