Kes (Loach, 1969)

Kudos to TCM and guest programmer Tracy Ullman. They recently provided a pristine screening of Ken Loach’s heart-wrenching breakout film Kes, a real treat for cinema lovers. The film is only available on the dreaded PAL DVD format (at least for us in the States), so I’ve been longing to view this for years, and boy does Kes live up to it’s reputation as a groundbreaking work. Set deep in the urban grays and greens of working class England, Kes tells the story of a troubled youth named Billy and his time spent training a wild falcon. Despite a volatile home life (his brother personifies arrogant vanity), Billy becomes a student of falconry, showing the fortitude to practice his craft successfully in a positive and life affirming way. The scenes with Billy and his bird Kes are marvelous, moments of silent awe complimenting a boy’s experimentation with an art form all his own. Loach beautifully contrasts Billy’s explorations with Kes into the dense English countryside and his trying times as a student, where the ideologies of the outdoors are no match for the unjust, bullying, and claustrophobic experiences with fellow children and teachers. Loach uses misjudgment as a recurring motif throughout the film, showing innocent students getting reprimanded as teachers haplessly attempt to dish out venom to stem the tide of unruliness. The film stacks the odds against Billy in ways both subtle and cruel, only to find the boy persevere nonetheless all because of Kes. Billy finds a joy to be excited about and no one pays attention (one teacher does take small interest), resulting in a slow, beautiful slice of happiness drifting under the everyday trials and tribulations of blue collar life. While the ending displays an emotional rampage similar to other English Angry Young Man pictures, Loach uses his last shot to join Billy in one final ritualistic rite of passage, a perfectly mature act for a boy fighting off irrelevance with all his strength.

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