Over more than four decades, director Ken Loach has evolved and expanded his scope as a filmmaker, but certain fundamentals have largely remained the same: a dedication to working-class issues, an unvarnished naturalism that often involves the use of non-professional actors, a leftist political bent that’s either right on the surface or just below it, and a generous sense of humor and humanity that brings vital character to films that might otherwise feel like theses. His second feature after honing his craft on television melodramas, the devastating 1970 film Kes distills all these qualities to their essence, and in that sense, it belongs in the discussion with classics like The 400 Blows or Umberto D. Working from Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel For A Knave, Loach defines the narrow parameters of a young boy’s life with a poet’s eye and the rigor of a great documentary. It’s as uncannily truthful as fiction gets.
Presented with his hair mussed, a constant layer of filth on his hands and face, and a cord tied around his ill-fitting pants, David Bradley stars as a 15-year-old who looks and acts much younger, but nonetheless has to grow up fast. He lives with his bullying older brother and absentee mother in Barnsley, a coal-mining Northern England town, and contributes what little he can via an early-morning paper route that leaves him exhausted at school. Teased relentlessly by his classmates and scorned by teachers, Bradley sets out bird-nesting one day and finds a kestrel nest atop a monastery’s crumbling façade. Lifting a book on falconry from the library, he makes a home for the bird in the shed and sets about the difficult task of caring for it and training it.
There’s no getting around it: Kes is unbearably sad. The kestrel isn’t just the boy’s only friend, it’s the one part of his chaotic, relentlessly dispiriting life where he can exert control and bring real expertise into play. Teachers have a hard time getting him to say anything, but when one asks him about it, he responds with such uncharacteristic enthusiasm and articulateness that the teacher feels compelled to come see the bird in action for himself. It isn’t hard to predict where Kes is headed, but Loach gets there through a vivid (and surprisingly funny) picture of a working-class town, as well as a tour through the cold institutions of education and labor that force the boy down an unchosen path. His story is a heartbreaker, but Kes doesn’t wallow in misery for its own sake; it simply depicts a tough life as fully as it can.
Key features: A fine package of extras is highlighted by Making Kes, a new documentary featuring interviews with many of the creative principals (including a now-middle-aged Bradley), and Loach’s popular 1966 TV drama Cathy Come Home. It also has an alternate “international” dialogue track intended for viewers who can’t parse the thick accents, but using the subtitles is preferable.