By Jake Triola
It’s been nearly fifty years since the release of Ken Loach’s Kes (1969), and the film’s fabulist quality still permeates the screen, feeling fresh as ever. The idea that a movie like Kes contains the subject material that it does is at once antithetical and apt, being a product of the social realist wave of 1960s Britain. Loach, now 82, still makes these kinds of films in a world of Marvel and deliberate quirk, and, as a filmmaker with two Palme d’Or wins, there still seems to be room for him.
The film follows Billy Casper (played by a wildly real David Bradley), a boy verbally and physically abused both at home and in school, and his struggles through adolescence. It’s so similar to a certain fairly acclaimed French film that the comparison would be too obvious a statement to make. But Billy has enough of his own experiences in the countryside surrounding industrial Yorkshire, which reminds me of my own Rust Belt roots.
But Kes is not named for Billy Casper or Yorkshire or anything other than the heart of its humanity, which happens to be an animal: a kestrel falcon, whose appearance throughout the film is sparse yet astonishingly affecting. Yes, Billy comes to find a connection with his beloved birdie that gives him an escape from a world of violent brothers, teachers, coaches, and peers who expect from him everything he cannot give them. It’s also, sadly, a world in which work and life are the same, year after year. Students come and go from school, join the mines or, possibly even worse, the cubicle, and stay there for the rest of their lives. There’s little hope in it, so Billy resorts to stealing, flunking, running away, and getting by.
But the need for Kes to be in Billy’s life is not simply to act as animal companion or even as escapism but, rather, for the young Barnsley boy to find hope. On his first go at training Kes in the field, we listen to the accompanying voiceover of Billy, in quite the orderly manner, reciting the instructions for falconry. This simple act is mesmerizing, and it establishes just why we need animals: to be, if you can believe it, more human. One scene depicts schoolchildren watching and listening attentively to a routine reading of scripture in which the instructor recites the Parable of the Lost Sheep. As said instructor preaches the moral need to go out and save the one sheep who’s strayed from the pack of ninety-nine, one cannot help but detect hypocrisy from those who lead Billy Casper in school.
Once Billy discovers his love for falconry, however, things change a little. He finally has something he can share with his class, and he does so with gusto. His teachers take notice. One, in particular, Mr. Farthing (Colin Welland), after standing up to Billy’s bully, empathizes with Billy and asks to visit him out in the field with Kes. In this instance, we finally see a glimpse of affection from the adult population of Barnsley, and a third dimension is formed. Not all teachers are bad (obviously), but, now, Billy can see so for himself.
Despite the film’s seemingly saccharine premise, Loach’s lens never cloys. Kes marks a major turn toward naturalism in filmmaking during a most awkward phase in the history of cinema. Above all things, it’s a beautiful tale about finding purpose when there feels to be none. I hope you see it.