Released on a Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-Ray April 19 and currently available to watch instantly on Netflix, Kes (1969), directed by Ken Loach, is widely regarded as one of the best of all British films (ranked No. 7 by the British Film Institute). That praise could go even further though.
Kes is one of the greatest films from anywhere … ever.
It is the moving and stark portrait of a young boy, Billy, who finds, befriends, tames, and trains a kestrel, aptly named Kes. This boy and this bird, and this film, do not attain, nor do they even seek to begin with, the sort of sentimentality that a movie about a child and an animal can typically denote. It’s much more than that, much more honest than that.
Loach’s masterpiece follows Billy as he tries to make his way through the grim and at times quite aggressive world of his downtrodden, working-class English town, seeking solace in his time with Kes, finding a refuge from the hostilities of family strife, torment at school, and an otherwise stagnant existence; shots of the bird soaring freely through the overcast skies stand as sharp contrasts and perhaps as sources of envy for the boy who seems to find abuse and confinement at every turn.
Kes comes at the end of the decade which featured a surge of superb British cinema, often deriving from the so-called “Angry Young Men” of the British New Wave. Like Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), and Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963) and If.... (1968) – all wonderful films – it too takes a similarly authentic portrayal of provincial living. In dialogue, rich and thick with jargon-laden accents, in location, with pervading grayness hovering above the mud and the dank natural exteriors, and in characterization, with individuals dressed and looking like they were caught living unawares by the filmmakers’ cameras, the film takes an commonly-clichéd “documentary approach” to its scenes. But these moments of valid representation don’t bog down the film in the manner of a sparse narrative or in overtly bleak stagings of haphazard and inconsequential occurrences. There’s no question that Loach is a gifted filmmaker, and here he accomplishes much with his purposeful ("observational" in his words) direction, many scenes presented as pure, affecting, and magical, despite their dreariness. Loach knows many of these moments are quite powerful, and he and the performers reveal the lightness, and the darkness, in these characters and these locations.
Specifically, moments of Billy and Kes together stand out, and they are of a sublime beauty. Billy is played astonishingly by David Bradley who, while he would continue to act, mostly for television, would never match the genuineness of his performance here — few other actors would either. Billy’s enthusiasm and passion, his drive and his pain, are well-worn on Bradley’s face, at once young looking and older than it should be.
The scene where Billy tells and animates to his teacher and classmates the processes of training Kes is simply one of the greatest moments of acting and filmmaking, eliciting a smile of appreciation and tears of sympathy.
The film as a whole is simply unforgettable.
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