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Kes (Blu-ray Review)

2 May, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
‘PG-13’ for language, nudity and some teen smoking.
Stars David Bradley, Freddie Fletcher, Lynne Perrie, Colin Welland.

A pre-release festival favorite whose subsequent niche popularity even astonished its makers, director Ken Loach’s 1970 critical breakthrough (with longtime producer Tony Garnett) is, in trivial shorthand, a boy-and-his-falcon movie.

It would be a mistake, however, to bunch it with any or all semi-distant cousins like, say, the girl-and-her-horse movie, the boy-and-his-collie movie or the Viking-kid-and-his-tamed-dragon feature cartoon. That’s because this is among the few of its ilk with a social conscience. Loach is an old Lefty who, for one thing, can’t conceal his contempt for Margaret Thatcher — and he remains appalled that it has always been built into the British class system (more today than even then) that half the children will simply fail. You know: like microwaves or washing machines constructed to go on the blink before very long.

Shot in Northern England by that distinguished visualist Chris Menges (later of The Killing Fields), Kes’s dialogue is so thick in impenetrable accents consistent with that region that extensive post-synched recording of dialogue became a necessity for the international edition of the film (it’s included here as an alternative, but your ears still have to be alert). Still, it’s worth toughing it out because this is a very special movie — albeit one I stupidly avoided during its original theatrical release because it was … well, a “boy and his …” story.

Remarkable lead actor David Bradley, interviewed here in his late 50s as part of an excellent 45-minute look-back that also features Loach and Garnett, represented a stroke of great luck for the filmmakers. They had arranged to shoot at the school where much of the action here takes place, and one of their associates was confident (knowing that Loach usually eschewed professional actors) they could pluck the right protagonist from the student body. Incredibly, they did. As story-central Billy, young Bradley had a youthful face with no shortage of adult character lines, and his dark blue eyes were so intense that they easily penetrated Menges’ low-key photography.

Billy’s dad has long ago abandoned the family, the boy’s mother fools around some (with a cause), and his equally scrap-heaped older brother is surly and mean — just as many or most would be knowing that 40 or 50 years of coal mining awaited them. Finding a kestrel and nurturing it is Billy’s respite from a no-future future that’s been in store for him since birth by a rigged system fostered by bureaucrats and tough-guy teacher/administrators (there’s one exception here) who’ve carved out their own fiefdoms. The movie’s key scene comes when the one sympathetic teacher encourages the boy to speak in class of his newfound passion for falconry, whereupon Billy takes on a newly animated public persona (just in time to get him bullied on the playground by a much bigger kid). The teacher is played by the film’s one professional actor: Colin Welland, who shortly thereafter got cast as a very twisted village’s reverend in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs.

If one took a stopwatch to this 111-minute feature, I suspect there’d wouldn’t even be 20 devoted to the creature Billy terms “Kes.” The rest consists of searing vignettes that Loach either staged superbly or “let happen.” One highlight is a night at the pub where a youthful musical group’s laboring through cover versions of instant chestnuts gives way to bawdy traditional tunes performed by a more seasoned trouper. There’s also one of the great gym-class scenes in screen annals. The non-professional who plays the bully martinet running the show (we all grew up with the type) moonlighted in real life as a wrestler, and his performance easily makes you imagine what that must have been like.

The bonus extras also include a 1993 “South Bank” show on Loach and (in full) 1966’s Cathy Come Home, a Garnett-Loach TV film about homelessness that made major waves in England at the time. The making-of documentary has a lot of interesting material on how Bradley and the crew worked with the falcons — which, of course, had to be plural (kester stand-ins, so to speak). Because if you had only one, and it flew away during shooting, you’d have lost your movie.

Hmmm. I guess that’s right, come to think.

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