Friday, 17 January 2014

Kes (1969)

Only his second feature, Kes based on the Barry Hines novel A Kestrel For A Knave about a young Yorkshire boy who trains a kestrel, remains one of Ken Loach's distinctive, largely because the working style we now associate with him was first set here. 




Gone are some of the more mannered techniques he had used in his BBC plays in favour of a more realistic, observer style that owes its roots in the Czech cinema he was so fond of. 

Also gone is the uneasy compromise he made on his first feature, Poor Cow, to include a star name in his work in the shape of Terence Stamp. From hereon in, Ken Loach films would cast non actors and amateurs, real people in lead roles and none were perhaps so distinctive as the young schoolboy David Bradley who bagged the lead of Billy because he was a pupil at the school they were filming at and, more, because he was exactly what was needed. He was real.




I first saw Kes as a teenager and this rewatch has satisfyingly proven to me that the film still has the power to emotionally engage as if it were a first watch. Loach's impassive observer style shoots the film exactly as it is required, as a snapshot of real working class life, with no judgements to make. Indeed this is especially significant in his handling of the Jud character, Billy's older brother played by Freddie Fletcher who, frustrated by Billy's decision not to place his bet on, will slay the kestrel that provides Billy with his only escape and happiness in his dead end existence. Loach may depict Jud as the uncouth bully he is, but there's another layer there for the audience to seek that allows you to  sympathise with such a brute that is especially evident on a rewatch.  Jud is a miner (a cruel existence that is probably lying in wait for Billy too) who in one scene down the club proclaims that he 'couldn't be happier' than he is with life now. But Jud is kidding himself, the 'bird' he's chatting up, his pals and the viewer, because he's just as trapped and ignored as Billy is as we see from several glimpses of his life throughout, culminating in the final reel and his atrocious spiteful actions which reveal that if he had his bet placed he would have won a whole week's wages which would have given him some escape equally akin to Billy's time flying Kes, a chance to take a week off and enjoy himself away from the horrors of coal dust in the lungs mining a wretched existence underground day in day out for the lowest pay in the developed world.




If Loach has one message with Kes it is that the lives of the likes of Billy and Jud are predetermined at birth. They are born working class and as such must endure a life of unskilled belittling labour, their dreams, intelligence and spirits crushed. The school Billy attends (and Jud had previously attended) is the breeding ground, the place where the spirit is crushed as soon as it is conceived thanks to violent  teachers exasperated by their own selves such as headmaster Mr Gryce (Bob Bowes, looking and acting just like my old primary school headmaster) and PE teacher Mr Sugden, a character who provides some comic relief despite his immature brutality and is superbly played by Brian Glover (then a teacher at the school itself) Sugden is the PE teacher we all unfortunately had and, in his own way, has his own sense of escape thanks to his dreams of being Bobby Charlton and playing for Man Utd against Spurs when he is in fact playing against his pupils and gleefully exerting his might and strength over them. 





It is only Colin Welland's Mr Farthing who shows any empathy and sensitivity with pupils like Billy, but it is too little too late - Billy's life has already been mapped out and no kindness and encouragement, however rare and well intentioned, can divert his path now. Were this Hollywood undoubtedly Farthing would be a Gregory Peck character who would take centre stage in the last half and change Billy's life for the better. But this isn't the movies, this is real life and saviours aren't always around the corner no matter how much we need them and Welland's Farthing remains a foot note, a good man with no real means to help anyone.




Now forty five years old the themes, message and approach Kes has has barely dated. It remains a grubbily realistic poetic evocation of northern working class life and tells us to grab our respite and dreams where we can and how we can. I imagine it still has just as much to say to a young boy or girl as it did when I saw it at that age and when the generation of children in the early 70s saw it too.



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