Reviews and notes
1970 Karlovy Vary, New York
Ken Loach's Kes
perfectly illustrates the alienation, forlornness, and disillusionment of childhood. Tormented by his older brother, abused by his teachers, and harassed by his schoolmates, a young working-class Yorkshire boy named Billy (David Bradley) finds solace in caring for a wild kestrel. Loach contrasts shots of the hawk flying freely with a grim industrial landscape of factories and mines. Despite the overt symbolism of the bird, the film never feels contrived or hackneyed. Loach's great accomplishment is that he manages to illicit pathos without relying on cheap sentimentality. Though the film is relentlessly bleak, there are moments of comic relief (most notably the football scene), and Billy retains some glimmer of resilience until the very end.
- Harrison Sherrod, Cine-File.
it is important to draw a distinction between Kes
and the worthy kind of quasi-documentary teleplay, so prevalent still in British television, which can be thoroughly good but can also send one hurtling from armchair to teledial, twisting and turning in search of Basil Rathbone in an old Sherlock Holmes
movie. One can have more than enough of a good and worthy thing; and I make this point, right off, on account of the species of television called to mind by the names of Ken Loach and Tony Garnett, who have respectively directed and produced Kes
Certainly it is a socially critical film, but it is also superior of its kind. and frequently poetic in style. This virtue stems principally from the successful attempts of its young antihero, Billy Casper, to capture and 'man' a bird of prey — an activity considered by some to be cruel, or so I understand, but in the present case an almost metaphorical token of the fifteenyear-old boy's sublimation. His aura is negative: Yorkshire village, dull school, antipathetic home life. There is nothing to interest him until he discovers the possibility of training a kestrel. Virtually preyed upon himself by an indifferent and even antagonistic society, his act of self-redemption is to master a savage creature, taking it young and subjecting it to his will — which is precisely what human beings, mindlessly or consciously, have done to Billy.
Against the familiar sociological notes, like a shot of an over-laden rubbish bin, Loach places his images of luminous woods: Billy's first glimpse of the freedom symbol, a hawk in flight, alleviates the faint tinge of worthiness at once. Consequently, all that follows in the way of social comment, both witty and pertinent, is elevated far above the norm. Apart from Billy himself, who remains throughout a distinct individual and not merely the usual figure of youthful rebellion and potential delinquency, the other characters are fairly commonplace; but at the same time succinctly drawn, so that one doesn't grow weary of them. Widowed and sexy mother, too preoccupied to be dutiful and patient with Billy; bitter elder brother; old-fashioned headmaster, using the cane with relish; P.T. instructor with a sadistic-fantastic psychological dilemma of his own, punishing Billy with a protracted cold shower and dreaming up a miserable and muddy soccer match until it assumes, in his mind, the glamour of a tussle between Manchester United and Spurs, a conceit to which the schoolboys respond quite merrily, unconscious of its dubious mental origins: all these figures, ordinary and real, illuminate the special case of Billy.
It is perhaps a bit obvious, but nevertheless fair, to counteract the headmaster and the P.T.-terror with another teacher who is sensitive enough to notice Billy's apartness and to encourage him in his cultivated release. This same teacher promotes the major emotional scene of the film when he invites Billy to regale the class with an account of how such a bird is 'manned'. In effect, the impromptu quality of this speech is mesmerising, although it might not be so remarkable a feat of direction as it seems at first glance.
The clever thing in circumstances like this is to choose the right child, and Loach did well to pick a non-actor, a schoolboy named David Bradley, who apparently went through the entire process of taking a small bird from the nest and training it himself under expert supervision. This very long and arduous task on young Bradley's part is as commendable as his natural behaviour in front of the camera; and I should assume that his big speech is an ad lib account of exactly what was involved, edited shrewdly by means of cutting to reaction shots of the faces of his fellow-schoolboys, whose expressions vary amusingly from total fascination to a touch of ennui.
Given this strong measure of interest, and of filmic value, in the relationship between child and bird, Loach is able to bring out the serious element very strongly. There is a perfect blending of despair and satire in Billy's interview with a youth employment officer, whose routine provides a choice between manual or mental labour, neither of which spheres are extensive enough in the minds of officialdom to accommodate a nature as rich and human as Billy's. The alternatives, we gather, are 'an office' or 'the bins'. To his credit, Billy departs in disdain, cutting the interview short, like one who has more important things to do. The satiric vein is abandoned, however, in the closing phase of the story, which cleaves to the novel by Barry Hines but arouses more emotion than sprang from the printed page. In the final image, the poetic strain of the film is aligned with a feeling not far removed from tragedy.
- Gordon Gow, Films and Filming, May 1970.
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