While Kes, the second feature length film by the British director Ken Loach, has been acclaimed by the critics and ignored by the general public, it has little to do with a difficult plot, or a self-indulgent, experimental style. On the contrary, it’s a straightforward little narrative about a bullied 15-year-old boy that should have an almost universal appeal. The problem has always been its setting. Filmed in the mining district of Yorkshire with mostly non-professional actors, the north of England accents can sometimes seem a bit like a foreign language.
There’s no reason people in the United States shouldn’t discover this poetic, humanistic film. The Yorkshire mining district accents are much less of a problem on DVD or on YouTube (where Kes is currently available in full) since you can easily turn on subtitles translating them into standard American English. While the setting and the story may at times feel bleak and hopeless, it’s offset by the almost universal appeal of the protagonist.
Kes stands squarely with a bullied underdog against the institutions of a class society. The protagonist, the 15-year-old Billy Casper, who lives with his single mother and 20-something brother in the city of Lundwood, is part of the lower-working-class. The opening of Kes, short for Kestrel, is quietly bleak. British miners at the time were among the lowest paid workers in the developed world. Billy and his brother Jud not only share a bedroom, but a bed. An alarm clock rings. Jud, who is already working down in the mines, and Billy, who has to deliver papers before he goes to school, want nothing more than to stay in bed. As they squabble, as Jud demonstrates his complete disregard for Billy’s feelings, his callous, spiteful attitude towards his brother, you get the sense that this is about more than just wanting to hit the snooze button and get an extra hour of sleep. Both would rather just be unconscious than be alive.
We can see why Jud is so bitter and angry. What exactly do you have to live for if you’re pulling full time shifts at the mine, and don’t even have your own bed? Then again, Jud is not even the kind of young man who could imagine something better. He’s just an asshole with no inner life. He’s all surface.
Billy Casper on the other hand, lives in his own head, so much so that it makes it difficult for him to cope in the harsh, working-class school he’s on the verge of leaving to go find a job. These days he’d probably be diagnosed with Aspergers and medicated. But in Loach’s film, it’s clear that he’s an asocial, clumsy misfit simply because his imagination is likely to offer him a better life than anything in the real world. It makes sense for him to turn away. One day, out walking, he sees a pair of kestrels flying low over the horizon. A Kestrel, a majestic breed of hawk also known as a “windhover,” is perhaps, best described by quoting the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins.
“I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!”
Suddenly, Billy Casper has something to live for. This is love at first sight, only it’s not a girl, who, at best would simply drag him down into a dreary working-class marriage, back into the cycle where his mother is trapped, a dead end that would do nothing more than produce more wretched Billies and Juds. The kestrel is Billy’s soul made flesh, the descent of his consciousness into the the physical and the ascent of the physical into the spiritual. After discovering the kestrel’s nest in a dilapidated ruin of an old castle, Billy steals a book on falconry from a local second hand book store, captures the bird, then brings it home.
Immediately we see the contrast between the way Billy treats the kestrel, or “Kes,” and the way the adults at school treat him. Where Billy loves Kes, trains him only to teach him to be more free than he already is, Billy’s school is all about crushing the spirit. Indeed, what’s striking about Kes is the way the lower-working-class and the lower-middle-class have so completely assimilated the contempt of the ruling classes for their “inferiors,” themselves. In another film about alienated youth, like the great French movie La Haine, we need cops. We need the oppressor with a gun or a set of riot gear. In Kes, people at the bottom of English society repress one another so well all we need are schoolteachers and football coaches. Loach captures the way people who hate themselves and the people around them speak, the contempt, the harsh dismissiveness, the inarticulate rage at being part of a community you despise in the way they spit out their words and hector one another for no conceivable reason. But Kes allows Billy to escape it all. As he watches Kes fly, soar above what we can now see is still a lovely green countryside apart from the mines, we soar with Billy’s soul. He will of course be defeated in the end, but, unlike Jud, he does, if only for a brief time, know what it’s like to be free.
That makes what happens to Billy, and to Kes, all the more emotionally devastating. It’s not that we don’t know what’s coming. A young man like Billy is damned before he’s even born. He really doesn’t have a chance But it’s the sheer cruelty and maliciousness of what’s done to him that makes Kes such a small scale, yet powerful protest against the English class system. “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk,” the American poet Robinson Jeffers said.
Kes leaves us wanting to kill someone.