KES Review: BFI Re-Release Classic British Film

Capturing the essence, views and aspirations of the period, Kes is a vital social document, a fundamental re-release of an historical England without losing any of its vigour over 40 years on.

Laura Clark


[rating: 4.5]

Living in the mining town of Barnsley, Yorkshire, the life and future of 14 year old Billy Casper (David Bradley) is unpromising. Confined to poverty, he is a petty thief, and mediocre student soon to face the unescapably bleak prospect of joining his older brother Jud in the mines. Billy’s mother (Lynne Perry) spends her free time with her admirers in the local, hoping to fulfil her dream of “a nice house and someone to come home to.” To her, Billy is a “hopeless case” who receives little more than nonchalance. Jud, Billy’s bullying older brother rules the house and like their mother, is more interested in the opposite sex. But Billy’s pastimes of reading the Dandy and pilfering milk are soon substituted by raising Kes, the kestrel he ‘discovers’ near his home which brings him real happiness and a new experience of freedom.

Kes depicts the failing social systems upon society and their effect Billy, part of a generation who are undermined and oppressed.  Bullying P.E teacher Mr Sugden (Brian Glover), a failed football player who likes to pretend that he is Bobby Charlton tries to gain some sense of glory, punishing his pupils who thwart his dreams. Mr Farthing (Colin Weiland) is the only person who is willing to let Billy talk about his hobby offering hope beyond the mines and a chance for to break free, encourages Billy’s monologue to the class, which is haunting, awkward, and full of enthusiasm, and enchants the class.

But society is obviously unhappy with the rebellion of the underclass, this outsider like a young Morrissey who has succeeded, albeit briefly, in betraying his expectations and so punishes him. Director Ken Loach, questing for social justice concludes an inevitably incredibly bleak and unhappy end to Billy’s childhood; there is no blood or gore, just stark lifelessness ravished from the rubbish. Billy’s life regains its futile existence.

The newly restored film reduces the original grain, but not so that it loses any of its charm, and emphasis is also put upon colour. There is a certain luminosity to the updated colours, highlighting all the more importantly the metaphorical colours of his life, the present, the vibrant greens in the foreground of his remaining childhood and the dreary greys of industry that loom in the background, the drab monotony of his future. The greens feel more strikingly vivid juxtaposed against the irony-grey background of industry and boredom. The factory smoke that weaves its way through the sky symbolises the freer world Kes gave him, against his oppressed world of systemic pressures and expectations. Perhaps Kes presented Billy with the inspiration to strive more than society’s wish, and his future wasn’t buried also.

Loach doesn’t emphasise a strong narrative, but provides more of an observation into a small, but defining period in Billy’s life that is completely unpretentious, bleak, and unsentimental. The distance between the camera and its subject that feels very naturalist, observational, except for the intimacy and joy between Billy and Kes. Loach captures the industrial landscape, with the chimneys, erupting smoke, the clinking noise of industry perfectly.  The sudden jump-cuts from one scene to another are rough, creating the sense that the scene hasn’t quite concluded, accentuating the abrasive feeling of the film. Life is observed from a little bit of distance; long and medium shots are used for the majority of the film with only close ups used for Billy and Kes. Capturing the essence, views and aspirations of the period, Kes also obliges as a vital social document, a fundamental re-release of an historical England without losing any of its vigour over 40 years on.


Kes is back in UK theatres now.