Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Kes: Another triumph for Criterion

Kes (drama)
Directed by Ken Loach
Starring David Bradley, Colin Welland, Brian Glover

Criterion | 1969 | 110 minutes | Rated PG-13

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Video resolution: 1080p
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1

English: LPCM Mono
English: Dolby Digital Mono
English: LPCM Mono
English: Dolby Digital Mono (less)

English SDH
English SDH (less)

Single 50GB Blu-ray Disc
Region A locked

The Film 4.5/5

The film contains brief nudity and scenes which may disturb young children.

Kes is a very British film, winning two BAFTA awards from its five nominations. Colin Welland won for best supporting actor and was the only professional actor in the film. David Bradley won for most promising newcomer.

The story deals with a troubled young boy, Billy Casper (Bradley). He is bullied by his older brother at home and similarly treated by his peers in school. He’s insolent, not above lying or stealing and does little to encourage people to like him. He’s a loner.

The setting is Barnsley, Yorkshire, in the north of England. If you have ever seen this part of England depicted in other films, you’ll know that it’s a poor area populated largely by working-class people. In the 1960s, that was very much the case. Billy’s brother worked in a coal mine, as did most of the town. The two had to share the same bed, so you can imagine how poor they were. 

Anyone unfamiliar with British accents may find the thick Yorkshire dialect hard to follow. It’s the main reason that Kes wasn’t given a wide release outside England. I’m completely at home with the accent because my grandfather came from Barnsley. He often talked about his tough upbringing and it gives the film additional meaning for me. His father was a miner and my grandfather only escaped that fate by joining the army.

We see Billy on his paper route, taking time off to read his comic. He also steals eggs from the milkman. Milk is still delivered to each home in the UK in this manner. When his mother and brother go out to a bar on the weekends, Billy is left at home on his own. His brother beats him and the house is generally filled with the sound of his mother and brother arguing loudly. He doesn’t say much at school, but is often the target of bigger boys. 

Early in the film, Billy is taking a walk through the countryside and spies a kestrel. He watches for a while and sees that two kestrels are taking food to a nest. After stealing a book about falconry from a local bookstore, he climbs up to the nest and steals a young kestrel. The bird provides an escape from his unpleasant existence and quickly becomes the focus of his life. This seemingly uneducated boy has discovered his passion. He reads the stolen book and trains the kestrel.

One day, in class, he is asked by a teacher, Mr. Farthing (Welland), to tell the other kids a true story about his life. He’s reluctant and says that he doesn’t have any, but one of the kids mentions his kestrel. This leads to one of the strongest and most emotional scenes in the film. He’s disinterested in everything he is taught and the people around him, but talking about the bird is a different matter. Billy comes alive when he describes how he devotes his time to feeding and training the bird, who he names Kes. Farthing is engrossed in the story and sees for the first time that there’s more to Billy than he imagined. He starts to look out for the boy and even visits him to watch him train Kes. It’s a strong performance from Welland and he deserved his BAFTA award.

The other teachers wouldn’t have a job in modern society. They shout continually and are deeply suspicious of the kids’ behavior. The headmaster uses the cane and doesn’t seem to mind whether those being punished were truly to blame. The gym teacher cheats at soccer and punishes Billy with a cold shower for conceding a goal. Farthing is the only one who looks at the kids as if they are young people with a chance to make something of their lives.

There’s a strong political message in the film, confirmed during interviews in the special features, that many kids have no chance to escape their miserable reality. Billy visits a careers officer who only seems interested in placing him in a pigeon hole. He’ll either work in an office if he has the aptitude, or he’ll become a miner. The writers talk about how two-thirds of their generation suffered a similar fate. When we see Billy so animated, talking about Kes, it’s a sign of his true potential. Will it be recognized or will his life be written off by others as insignificant? This is the essence of the film, along with how Billy substitutes friendship with his love for Kes.

Billy’s dishonest nature eventually becomes a problem for him and there are some extremely sad scenes. 

The story is based on the book A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines. Bradley was 14 when the film was made and was chosen from pupils who attended the school mentioned in the book. All of the children came from one of three schools in the town. The gym teacher (Brian Glover, Alien 3) was a real teacher at the time and Kes was his first film.

Video Quality 4.5/5
The film was made in 1969 on a low budget, but looks wonderful. Criterion's restoration was approved by director Ken Loach. There are occasional white speckles and softness, but the new transfer looks natural and full of detail. This is exactly what I would expect from Criterion, who, along with Disney, continue to maintain the highest possible standards.

Audio Quality 4/5
Two options are offered on the menu: The filmmaker’s original soundtrack with production dialogue (English LPCM 1.0) and the internationally released soundtrack with postsync dialogue (English Dolby Digital 1.0). I recommend the original version. Everything is clear, including the dialogue, but some viewers may benefit from the English subtitles due to the heavy Yorkshire accent.

Special Features 5/5

Making Kes (45 minutes, 1080p) tells you everything you might want to know about the film. Criterion interviewed director Ken Loach, producer Tony Garnett, actor David Bradley and cinematographer Chris Menges in 2010 to discuss their recollections.

The South Bank Show (50 minutes, 1080i) looks at the career of Ken Loach.

Cathy Come Home (77 minutes, 1080i) is an early film from Loach and Garnett shown here in its entirety.

Trailer (3 minutes, 1080p)

Booklet (22 pages) including an essay by Graham Fuller

Kes is a wonderful human interest story with a number of deeper themes thrown into the mix, although the story ends rather abruptly. The largely amateur cast was authentic and did a good job of portraying life in Barnsley. It’s on record at IMDB as being director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s (The Double Life of Veronique, Three Colors Trilogy) favorite film. I wouldn’t quite go that far, but it’s certainly worth owning. has it at the bargain price of $18.99 at the time of writing. I’m glad I took advantage.

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