Young teenager Billy Casper wonders around through life unconnected to his schoolwork, his family or even his emotions. However, when stumbling onto an untamed kestrel, Billy's passions are stirred by falconry, and soon the training of this 'Kes' becomes the only happiness for Billy amongst the poverty-stricken Northern estate in which he lives. Despite Billy's new-found interest, it seems that outside circumstances, such as the lack of proper education and the inner-fighting with his family, will force him to confront his grim destiny.
Kes is bittersweet, direct filmmaking told with the most effective approach by director Ken Loach. It's a film of crushed aspirations, the fight between one's fantastical dreams and the gritty reality of one's situation. Loach approaches the story with a perfect, no-thrills attitude that effectively downplays every situation. Were it not for John Cameron's wonderfully orchestrated musical accompaniment, the film would possess a distinct documentary aesthetic.
The message of Kes is brutally honest and forthright - the notion that opportunity is not fair and is not distributed evenly amongst youth. Billy has no future from the outset, and will be lucky if he carries on his family cycle of spending a lifetime working down the mines. As Billy's falconry hobby proves, he does have interests that spark passion and inner-drive, and yet it seems that every element and event seems hell-bent on subverting his dreams of a different life.
There is a marvellous, famous sequence of comic relief midway through the film, in which Billy and his classmates are forced to fight for life and death during a football match by P.E. teacher Mr. Sugden (wonderfully played by Brian Glover). Loach even has the mock score-line appear as text on screen, and this simple gesture reinforces the film's driving narrative. Sugden himself obviously dreamed of being a professional footballer, and he is now forced to live out his older days bullying his pupils into injecting the same enthusiasm into his only passion. In essence, Sugden is nothing more than an older version of Billy. Both are equally naïve, and both have dreams that will never be fulfilled.
Young David Bradley won a BAFTA award for his brilliant, warts-and-all performance as Billy, and yet his career never reached its own promising potential. Lynne Perrie, later to do a long stint in Coronation Street, performs admirably as Billy's mother, as well as stocky Freddie Fletcher, who provides menace to Billy's tyrannical brother Jud. Colin Welland has a nice supporting role as Mr. Farthing, the apparent 'hero' of the film, and yet his character is still not strong enough to cause the tides to change.
Chris Menges provides excellent murky photography to the film that helps to accentuate the severe lack of any beauty visually from the film. It strips any cinematic notions from Loach’s vision, and presents the proceedings as if any artistic involvement has been maintained at a bare minimum. It’s no wonder that Menges would later win Oscars for his assured photography.
Overall, Kes easily ranks as one of the greatest British films of all time. The film's message is hard-hitting without relying on fanciful devices and yet its directness is so forceful its hard to not shake from your mind the lingering images days after watching it.
Kes is presented in matted non-anamorphic widescreen 1.66:1 in a disappointing transfer that contains many traces of grain, noise, defects and digital artefacts. Luckily, Kes is the sort of realist viewing that ensures that these print faults don’t mar the proceedings to a dramatic extent, but there is massive room for improvement with the transfer.
Kes is presented in the original two track mono and sounds mostly undistinguished with dialogue and background effects occasionally clashing through the one channel. It’s a certainly a presentable sound track, but again could do with remastering, or at least a stereo remix of the John Cameron score which has just been released for the first time.
Presented in a colourful but static menu with no sound portions.
Kes is available in a transparent amaray casing with no insert. Chapter listings are printed on the reverse of the inlay.
The trailer is a decent summation of the film even if it is scarred heavily by some print defects. It’s a pity this is the only extra as Kes would clearly benefit from a revisionist documentary or a commentary from Loach.
Although Kes is a classic of British cinema, the MGM release is barely serviceable at best, and is mostly a let-down considering the many extra features possibilities that could have been explored, and certainly because of the bare-minimal effort paid to the film’s audio and visual qualities.