Take a filmmaker who has mastered the art of relatable storytelling and a setting as bleak as the North of England in the 1960’s and ‘Kes‘ may prove to be the end result. Ken Loach’s incredible family drama is the story of a young boy who raises and trains a kestrel whilst battling the bully that is his older brother in a world devoid of human emotion and patience for sensitivity. Kes is without a doubt one of the best children’s films any individual could watch, and although Loach’s skills far exceed cinema aimed directly at children, Kes‘ craftsmanship of conventional storytelling makes it a timeless piece of storytelling for people of all ages to enjoy.
Kes‘ main character Billy Asper, played by child actor David Bradley, is wonderful as the disadvantaged youth who spends most of his days avoiding school and attempting to avoid his brother at home. Eventually Billy stumbles upon an injured kestrel caught in a large abandoned castle tower, which he takes upon himself to train and care for. As his relationship with the bird continues Billy begins to view his grim world more optimistically with the hope of not joining his family’s tradition of working down the local coal pit after his education finishes. Loach uses the Yorkshire landscape wonderfully, utilizing the bleak and depressing canvas of England’s Northern industrial landscape. The locations of many scenes in Kes speak for themselves in terms of mood and tone, some almost with as much character as the main cast.
Not only is Bradley superb as the lovable yet at times heart wrenching Billy, but the films supporting cast of characters feel as if they are taken straight from reality. Two honorable mentions are Brian Glover as the fascist P.E. teacher Mr. Sugden and Colin Welland as Mr. Farthing, the only individual in Billy’s life who recognizes his differences with the rest of his class. Loach does allow the bleak mood of Kes to lighten up in some parts mercifully however. In one particular scene Mr. Sugden decides to join his class during a football match and cheats to be able to score goals. In an act of hilarity the scores for the match are added as a graphic over the shot footage.
Despite what some have described to me as unintelligible accents from its cast, Kes is a story that can speak to everyone. Its theme of longing for identity and insecurity over the not too distant future strikes a chord with almost anybody. The relationship Billy shares with his abusive brother, his loving but unconcerned mother, the staff at his school and the bird itself are all inter-woven wonderfully with Loach’s pragmatical approach to storytelling. Kes may not be the first children’s film that has stood the test of time, but its issues of family, tradition, loneliness and friendship have kept it as fresh today as it was 42 years ago.