Original release: November 14th, 1969
Running time: 112 minutes
Director: Ken Loach
Writer: James Dormer, Barry Hines
Cast: David Bradley, Freddie Fletcher, Brian Glover, Bob Bowes
In Ken Loach’s adaptation of Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel for a Knave, Billy (David Bradley) is caught between those awkward years when he’s no longer a child but not yet an adult. We all know what that’s like and we’ve all been there; those times when we do stupid things to feel part of something and when nothing seems to make any sense, least of all school and the authority figures that surround our daily lives. Yet the way Loach puts this forward on screen makes it a film that still resonates strongly with audiences, even after all these years.
Billy’s bullied at school, has a hard time concentrating in class and at home his older brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher) doesn’t help things any better. Even his mother thinks he’s a hopeless case and as a result the boy’s self esteem is little to none. His greatest fear stems from the fact that he lives in a coal mining town and doesn’t want to grow up and become a miner – but he sees no possible way out.
When he finds a baby kestrel, it’s like a beam of light in his dark, pitiful and aimless life. Billy devotes his time to caring for and training it, and even takes to reading up on them. He starts to nurture another living creature without ever having been nurtured himself. It brings about a positive change and it’s noticeable at school as well.
What makes Kes such a compelling film is the way it moves us through the ups and downs of Billy’s life. Loach makes us empathise with him when he’s bullied by Mr Sugden (Brian Glover) into the cold shower and caned by his headmaster Mr Gryce (Bob Bowes). When his daily life starts to change we want that change to last for him, for things to continue improving and maybe one day he won’t have to work down in the mines.
This is why it’s so heartbreaking for us when that light in his life is cruelly turned off by Jud. It’s not just the bird that dies, but a part of Billy as well. It’s a realist film and every frame of it delivers a look at the working class through Loach’s eyes. This theme runs through much of Loach’s work.
In some ways Bradley’s performance reminded me of Antoine Doinel’s in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1949) and there are parallels with the both stories as well, but Kes remains unique for the atmosphere it exudes and the emotion it expels from us as the audience.
Even though it was only Loach’s second feature, the signs of a great director were already there in the tender way he handled such a tough story. It’s a film that even today’s filmmakers and storytellers are still moved and inspired by.
 BFI Screen Online – Kes
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
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