Kes blu-ray review
If you grew up in the 80s and went to school in the North of England, you would have almost certainly found Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave on the curriculum. And a couple of lessons in that term would definitely have been dedicated to Ken Loach’s seminal adaptation, Kes. For my generation, Kes was the jumping off point for our literary education.
Now nearly 50 years old, Loach’s vivid and passionate portrayal of a neglected young boy in a working class mining community remains as vibrant and relevant as ever. Loach has always been our foremost chronicler of the working classes, and in Kes he captured with startling authenticity, the crushing desperation and anger that festered in these communities. The complete void of opportunity if you failed your 11-plus, and the gaping maw of the pit.
David Bradley, in one of the greatest non-professional performances in cinema history, plays Billy Casper, a scrawny lad from the outskirts of Barnsley, left to fend for himself by an uncaring mother, and a brutish older brother. School means nothing to him, and with no job prospects other than mining, he finds solace through training a kestrel. Out in the fields, teaching Kes to fly away and come back at his command, these scenes accompanied by John Cameron’s evocative score are a beautiful escape from his bleak home life.
The film isn’t just a series of hard times up North vignettes, however, as it perfectly captures the humour and poetry of the region and its language. Billy’s brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher) and his mother (Lynne Perrie) engage in wonderfully bitter arguments, full of nasty and barbed comments, yet they crackle with hilarious Yorkshire wit and turns of phrase.
In one of the most famous sequences in British cinema, Brian Glover’s scene-stealing turn as the PE teacher/football captain/referee, fantasising about being Bobby Charlton, remains undimmed in its hilarity. Likewise, when the one decent teacher at the school coaxes Billy to talk about falconry to the rest of the class, your heart soars with his love and enthusiasm for Kes.
Being re-released on blu-ray as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label, the print is a mixed bag. Some scenes look pristine, whilst others have clearly been impossible to clean up. The disc comes with a decent selection of extras, including new interviews with David Bradley, Tony Garnett, Chris Menges, John Cameron, Bernard Atha, and Richard Hines. There are excerpts from the Kes reunion panel at the 2006 Bradford film festival, with Loach in attendance. Also included is the extensive 1992 on-stage event at the National Film Theatre with Ken Loach being interviewed by Derek Malcolm. The disc also comes with a booklet featuring a new essay by film critic Philip Kemp.
In turns poetic, brutally real, lyrical, heartfelt and hilarious, Kes remains one of the most authentic films ever made about life in Britain. It established the distinctive voice of Ken Loach, and remains his most beloved film. It is quite simply a masterpiece.