Criterion // 1969 // 111 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Russell Engebretson (Retired) // April 29th, 2011
"An Eagle for an Emperor, a Gyrfalcon for a King;
A Peregrine for a Prince, a Saker for a Knight, a Merlin for a Lady;
a Goshawk for a Yeoman, a Sparrowhawk for a Priest;
a Musket for a Holy water Clerk, a Kestrel for a Knave."
From The Boke of St Albans, 1486, and a Harleian manuscript.
Kes was based on the book A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines, and was director Ken Loach's first theatrically released feature film. It was named one of the 10 Best British Films of the 20th Century by The British Film Institute.
Billy Casper (David Bradley, Malachi's Cove) is a 15-year-old Yorkshire boy, a scrappy loner who delivers papers before and after school, shares a bed with his bullying brother, Jud (Freddie Fletcher,The Governor), and mostly ignores his self-absorbed mother. His routine is derailed when he spots a small falcon, a kestrel, alighting in a crevice near the top of a crumbling, old stone tower situated in the countryside. He has raised a few birds in the past and is suddenly inspired to capture one of the young kestrels and try his hand at falconry. Unable to check out a book at the library, Billy decides to "nick" a book on falconry from a used book store. As he struggles through the vicissitudes of his school and family life, Billy's intelligence and imagination become entirely focused on the secretive training of his kestrel.
Ken Loach, the antithesis of a Hollywood director, is well-known for movies that celebrate working-class people, and movies that are sharply critical of ruling elites. As Chris Menges says in one of the extras, his films are partly about a country that organizes itself in such a way that two-thirds of its children are put on the slag heap. Loach has also shot films that are merciless in their realistic depiction of radical movements that become corrupted or whose members become their own worst enemies. The Wind that Shakes the Barley, set in 1920s Ireland, recreates on a broad canvas the history of the Irish Republican Army and the British occupation, unflinchingly depicting atrocities committed on both sides; whereas a film like Raining Stones narrows its vision down to an English working-class husband who is prepared to go to almost any length to secure a new dress for his young daughter's first Catholic Communion. As different as his many films are, they always sympathize with the underdog, but only in the most realistic manner.
Kes, which many believe is Ken Loach's best film, is sometimes compared to a documentary because of its realistic approach to the story and characters; however, it displays none of the off-the-cuff casualness of the average documentary. It is a finely-tuned cinematic machine. Shots are carefully blocked, natural light is used in most scenes (the cinematographer says that Ken Loach dislikes lights, so they had to "stretch" the film as much as possible), and the dialogue sounds natural -- almost improvised -- but actually follows the script very closely. Most of the actors were amateurs culled from the town where the film was shot, which also adds to the natural and authentic look of the film. All of the elements come together in a seemingly natural way, but it's a cunning illusion of casualness. This is a tight, expertly crafted movie. As is usual of Loach's protagonists, Billy comes across as a living, breathing person, not an idealized projection of a young Yorkshire lad.
Billy's life is a gauntlet of oafs and officious authority figures: Hostile schoolmates, a petty librarian, a self-important headmaster who delights in spanking the hands of his students, a gym teacher who favors his star players and humiliates the nonathletic boys, a youth employment officer whose real aim is to funnel children into a dead-in life of working in the mines and factories. When not enduring the scorn of his peers and "betters," we see Billy walking through the achingly green North England countryside, poking about the small town, or working with his young bird. And ever present in Billy Casper's mind is his underlying fear and hatred of the pit -- the local mine where he is destined to spend his life digging coal.
Late in the movie a sympathetic teacher, Mr. Farthing (Colin Welland, Bramwell), rescues Billy from a schoolyard bully and coaxes him into speaking to the class about Kes. There are several powerful moments in this movie, but watching Billy's face come to life with pride and passion as he talks about his beloved Kes is perhaps the strongest scene in the film.
The movie's finale is not uplifting. There is no last minute reprieve, no magical rescue. Imagine Billy Elliot with an uncompromisingly real denouement in place of its feel-good ending. That is how Kes winds down; hard, sad, authentic -- and deeply satisfying for its frank honesty.
The lavish offering of extras include a 24-page booklet containing an essay by Graham Fuller about Loach's career and the making and marketing of Kes; a 1993 The South Bank Show profile of Ken Loach; a 2010 45-minute documentary created exclusively for Criterion, featuring interviews with director Ken Loach, producer Tony Garnett, cinematographer Chris Menges, and actor David Bradley; and the 77-minute 1966 TV drama, Cathy Come Home.
The interviews are revealing and insightful in relation to the making of the film as well as the philosophies and politics of the filmmakers. Cathy Come Home is a harrowing look at homelessness and a meat-grinder bureaucracy that impedes and tears apart families rather than extending a helping hand. All of the extras are superb and essential viewing.
The audio for this disc is unusual in that there are two different soundtracks to choose from. The first (and preferable) track is the LPCM mono Filmmaker's Original Soundtrack, with Production Dialogue. The second track, in Dolby Digital mono, is entitled the Internationally Released Soundtrack, with Postsync Dialogue. The Yorkshire accents are thick and heavy, and the so-called international soundtrack was substituted for the original soundtrack when the film was distributed beyond the confines of Northern England. Evidently, the Yorkshire working class accent was too painful for Londoners. I'm fairly good at understanding various English dialects in movies, but I have to admit this is one of the more difficult I've listened to. Subtitles along with the original soundtrack will probably work best for most viewers. According to Criterion, the original monaural optical track negative and original magnetic soundtrack were remastered at 24-bit. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed with Pro Tools HD, and crackle was attenuated with AudioCube's integrated work station. I can attest that the dialogue is exceptionally clear and John Cameron's lovely, delicate score has likely never sounded better.
Concerning the video, here is an edited excerpt -- minus the technical hardware specifics -- from the Criterion booklet: "Surviving preprint film elements included a 35 mm color reversal internegative and the original 35 mm camera negative, both severely scratched and worn from more than 40 years of printing. Since the CRI was complete but the negative unedited, scanning both film elements was necessary...Director Ken Loach and cinematographer Chris Menges supervised the grading...Although the color and stability of the image were good, the image itself was marred by continuous vertical scratches. Virtually all of these scratches were eliminated..." From the foregoing, it's obvious that a great deal of work was invested into restoring the video and audio for this release. The Blu-ray video is gorgeous, and the LPCM monaural track is as good as any I've heard. It's easy to forget this film is over four decades old.
It's a stunning Blu-ray release from Criterion that merits several viewings. Kes is luminous, soaring, and a punch to the gut; a necessary purchase for any lover of artful, authentic cinema.
Review content copyright © 2011 Russell Engebretson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 1969
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Director Profile
* Bonus Film