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Billy Casper (David Bradley) has been in trouble for most of his 15 years. Deserted by his coal-miner father, neglected by his mother and bullied, not only by his brutish older brother (Freddie Fletcher), but by bigger boys at school and by teachers, Billy has always resorted to the wiles of a petty thief to acquire the things he needs to make life more bearable. One day on the moors, he is transfixed by the flight of a kestrel and steals one of her chicks. He raises the small bird he calls Kes and trains it to hunt for food. Kes gives Billy some purpose in his life and the prospect of some future, despite the efforts of others to extinguish the spark of hope.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
For someone who has seen something like 20,000 films in his lifetime, I tend to judge a film's worth on whether I can be bothered with repeat viewings. Kes is one of those rare films with a place in that pantheon, along with Citizen Kane (on the highest pedestal), the best of Billy Wilder, Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, many guiltier pleasures and perhaps 100 others. Not impressed? Well, consider that in 1999, Kes was ranked seventh on the British Film Institute's Top 100 films of all time and was deemed worthy of inclusion in a distinguished but challenging publication known as 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (Quintet, 2003). The last is significant, because the same book excludes Billy Elliot (2000) that shamefully manipulative tall story about a working class ballet boy, which received extravagant kudos but is a poor relation to its cousin Kes.

Kes is directed by Ken Loach, the foremost and most heartfelt chronicler of the British working class experience, which would be recommendation enough for anyone moved by the misery (and occasional mirth) of the more recent Riff-Raff (1990), Raining Stones (1993), Ladybird, Ladybird (1994) and My Name Is Joe (1999). Based on the Barry Hines novel A Kestrel For A Knave, which was compulsory reading in the English school system, Kes is set in the drab and depressed northern coal-mining town of Barnsley. The father has absconded; the mother would sooner chain-smoke and drink with her drunken chums down at the pub than provide a decent meal for her kids. "Here's two bob Billy," she chirps as she is about to leave the house for another night out, "I want you to get yourself some pop and some crisps."

Sheer poverty forces Billy and his twenty-something brother, Jud to sleep in the same bed. When Jud is slow to respond to the six o'clock alarm, Billy prods him awake and is soon told to "shut your stinking mouth." Life is like that for Billy, a scrawny, undernourished kid who is bullied at home, bullied by the storekeeper before his morning paper round, bullied by bigger boys at school and by grumpy headmaster Gryce, who lectures the boys about "decency, discipline, morals and manners" before striking them with a cane. "Stop that infernal coughing," the horrid little man bellows at assembly, "clear your throats on the way to school, not here." Those kids really were caned, incidentally: the tears are real.

The scene required three takes and Loach paid each boy 50 pence a stroke for their pain. I knew bastards like Gryce way back then (who didn't?) but one hopes they are despots of a distant past...men like sports-master Sugden (Brian Glover) a warped wannabe soccer star who, in an hilarious match with the boys, cheats outrageously and awards himself penalty kicks right in front of goal. When Billy "finds" the young kestrel, the bond he shares with the bird, through feeding and training, helps free him from the tyranny of his elders. Billy studies the bird, in books on falconry and in flight and comes to admire its independence. In one memorable scene he is urged by the only sympathetic teacher, Mr Farthing (Colin Welland) to address the class on his "hobby." With his intimate knowledge on the subject, Billy is able to hold everyone spellbound - his first audience, and make no mistake, Billy walks taller the next day. Loach achieves absolute miracles with his cast of amateurs and unknowns.

When the film was shown for the first time to a United Artists executive, he watched in silence and said at the end: "I would have preferred it in Hungarian!" He found the Yorkshire dialect incomprehensible, and so Kes wasn't released in the United States. The DVD's English subtitles are therefore, more than useful. This was Bradley's first film (he has worked only sporadically in the 35 years since) and it's an extraordinary performance, natural and courageous and equal to the best by an adolescent I've seen. Loach avoids sentimental clichés; the film is steadfastly unsentimental, refreshingly free of contrived romantic interests. And yet one moment near the end, that brings an anguished cry from Billy, has the power to melt the hardest heart. It comes as no surprise that Kes was the film that inspired Billy Elliot...but if one is a work of art the other is an artful work. The first remains one of those 100 or so films I must see (for a fourth time) before I die. The second isn't a patch on its pedigree.

Published January 13, 2005

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(UK, 1969)

CAST: David Bradley, Freddie Fletcher, Colin Welland, Brian Glover

DIRECTOR: Kenneth Loach

SCRIPT: Barry Hines, Kenneth Loach, Tony Garnett from Barry Hines' novel, A Kestrel For A Knave

RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes

PRESENTATION: 1.66:1 aspect ratio; letter box 4:3. Dolby digital 2.0. Languages English, German. Subtitles: English, German


DVD DISTRIBUTOR: MGM Home Entertainment

DVD RELEASE: January 19, 2005

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