Sunday 24 February 2008

Kes (1969)

Nowadays in Phoenix, AZ, it seems that kids spend half their time at school watching movies. I think I saw a grand total of one during all the years I was in school back in England and that one was to back up a Shakespeare play that we also read. We never saw Kes, but we did read the source novel, A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines, though I don't remember much past the working class setting and the abuse. In my day it was books not movies in school because it was considered far more important to know how to read than to recognise Brad Pitt. Then again, if they have it easy today compared to what I went through, I had it easy compared to what Billy Casper goes through during this story.

He's a young boy, played perfectly by sixteen year old David Bradley, living a rough life on a rough council estate in Barnsley, in the heart of working class northern England, with his mother and brother. They're a working family but still poor. His brother Jud, who shares the same bed as Billy, works down the pit and is a royal pain in the back end. Their mother is fed up both with Jud and being a single mum and yet drinks at the same place as him, presumably a working men's club.

Billy's one joy in life, beyond calling his brother rude names while he's in a drunken stupor, is a surprising one: falconry. When he gets the chance, after school and his paper round, he heads out to a local farm where he's discovered a kestrel nest hidden on a high rickety wall. When the kestrel gives birth he takes one of the babies and trains it, to a large degree learning how to read in the process in order to know what to do. Other than that, it's Desperate Dan in The Dandy, halfway through his round sitting on a hillside overlooking the pit.

The football match at school is my favourite part of the movie. It brings back plenty of memories, even though my teachers weren't hypocrites, sadists and cheats like Mr Sugden, played by Brian Glover who knew his stuff. Not only was he a teacher before becoming a wrestler and eventually an actor and writer, but he grew up in Barnsley where he became a teacher at the same school he had attended as a pupil. This was Barnsley School, the same school used in the film and at which Barry Hines, the writer of the novel and co-writer of the screenplay, was also a teacher. Kes was his first memorable film of many memorable films and it's amazing that such a career began just because he worked at the same school as the writer of the story.

There's plenty to admire here. Ken Loach, perennial documenter of working class English life, does a great job directing the film. It's tough but completely believable and while Billy is hardly a paragon of virtue, it's hard not to feel for his situation. Many directors could have given us that but Loach adds in a whole slew of detail, that you don't have to notice to get the plot but that add to it hugely.

That story itself belongs to Barry Hines, who doesn't just deserve credit for writing it but for turning down an offer from Disney who wanted to change it into something you'd expect Disney to make. They'd have paid him well, I'm sure, but artistic integrity won the day and I'm thankful for that and very respectful of Hines's decision. The ending is heartbreaking but it needs to be there. There's plenty to read into the film beyond the basic plot too, as pertaining to social issues in northern England and the likelihood of someone of Billy's class and location ending up anywhere else but down the pit.

The acting is top notch, led by David Bradley, only sixteen years old but simply perfect as young Billy. This was the first film he made, with only four more to come, but it's a stunning performance. He really nails both the natural victim and the kid who's found a vocation. Freddie Fletcher is suitably nasty as Jud, Brian Glover is awesome, Bob Bowes is a tough headmaster and Colin Welland is a believably decent teacher, the only one of the bunch, it would seem. In fact there's nothing much to find fault with. No wonder it's on the top ten of the British Film Institute's 100 Best British Films.

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