Kes, a British film from 1970 about a boy and the kestrel he befriends, is available for the first time in the US on DVD and Bluray today, courtesy of the Criterion Collection. Their restoration and re-release ressurrects a film that always ranks highly on British film polls, certainly with good reason. Kes is a British film with a focus on rebellious, disaffected, and even angry youth, and the turmoil of the lower classes. But it sets itself apart from the genre it works within by the sublime beauty that director Ken Loach (Wind That Shakes the Barley) offers us. He gives us an oppressive world, filled with despair and alienation, but with the unrelenting hope for freedom, and the refusal to fall prey to those who push you down.
I first encountered Kes upon reading this list by The Sunday Times, where they place Kes as high as #7 on their list, beating out such heavyweights as The Godfather, Psycho, and even the perennial favorite Citizen Kane. While I balked at the proposal, I still agreed with a few of their other radical picks, so I checked the local video store, which did not carry it as it has not been out on DVD until today.
Kes falls into a standard genre of 60’s and 70’s British films, tales of “angry young men,” victims of lower class oppression who were given a voice for the first time. They would be heard in the lyrics of The Who and The Sex Pistols as well as such films as The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and This Sporting Life. While it had all but ended by the time Kes arrived on the scene, the film still carries the ideas and themes of the deceased genre, except with a larger poetic goal in mind than the bleak depressing films that came before.
It follows a kid named Billy Caspar, shown to be something of a rebellious punk as he attempts to escape the drudgery of the world around him though catching and training a kestrel. His world is populated with adults who don’t understand him, teachers who have made up their mind that he will work in the local mineshaft, and an older brother who kicks him around endlessly. The kestrel, which he climbs a rugged brick wall to capture, offers him a brief respite from the world around him, a glimmer of hope, and a chance for escape.
In one scene, his brother says some nasty stuff about Billy’s newest passion (it’s revealed later to be the most recent of many animals Billy has taken in, as he appears to have a knack for it). He calls the kestrel a pest and a violent predator that terrorizes the farmer on whose land it lives. He even says that it carries off livestock, to which Billy quips “oh yeah, like a cow.” What becomes crystal clear in this scene is the kinship Billy feels with his kestrel. He sees them both as hated by the world and suffering at the cruel hands of those around them.
Through this relationship, the film blossoms into a rich portrait of a young boy, filled with the successes and tragedies he encounters in the brief time we are with him. But it never lapses into sentimentality or showcases the hopeful for the sake of making the audience feel better (nor does it do the opposite, frequent in films of its ilk, where the film offers just the negative to make the audience feel worse).
Kes changed British cinema forever, opting out of a bleak depiction of the world, a depiction it found to be resoundingly false. Instead it chose to show us that life is filled with struggles, but it also has its fair share of beautiful moments. We live for those moments, when the world seems less painful, less dreary. They keep us going, whether they rest in the first wild animal that comes to you of its own accord, or when a caring adult recognizes and embraces you. Or, perhaps, when you sit down and watch a lyrical, beautiful film that shows you that these moments exist.
*If you are interested in more British films like this, Lynne Ramsay’s debut feature Ratcatcher is in a very similar vein, and comes highly recommended.