(director/writer: Kenneth Loach; screenwriters: from the novel A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines/Barry Hines/Tony Garnett; cinematographer: Chris Menges; editor: Roy Watts; music: John Cameron; cast: David Bradley (Billy), Colin Welland (Mr. Farthing), Lynne Perrie (Mrs. Casper), Freddie Fletcher (Jud), Brian Glover (Mr. Sugden, physical education teacher), Bob Bowes (Mr. Gryce, principal), Bernard Atha (employment officer), Robert Naylor (MacDowell, school bully), Joe Miller (Reg, Mother’s pub friend), Trevor Hesketh (Mr. Crossley), Geoffrey Banks (Math teacher), David Glover (Tibbutt), Eric Bolderson (Farmer), Zoe Sutherland (Librarian), Duggie Brown (Milkman), staff and pupils of St. Helen’s County Secondary School, Barnsley, England); Runtime: 111; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Tony Garnett; United Artists; 1969-UK)

“A splendid unsentimental realistic working-class family drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Liberal Brit director Kenneth Loach (“Sweet Sixteen”/”Poor Cow”/”Black Jack”) helms in his first feature a splendid unsentimental realistic working-class family drama set in the drab northern coal mining town of Yorkshire, England, in its slum section of Barnsley (it was filmed on location). The sad but at times very funny film remains the provocative director’s most likable and one of his great ones; it was the film that gave him instant international recognition. It’s about a 15-year-old named Billy Casper (David Bradley, 14-year-old newcomer, the son of a miner, living in a working-class neighborhood, and delivering newspapers for pocket money) and his obsession with his wild pet kestrel that provides him with a means for escaping his unhappy life–he suffers abuse both at home and at school. But the film is more sublime than that and is really about how those from dysfunctional and impoverished homes have little chance in securing a better life for themselves unless they find a way of transcending their environment. It’s based on the Barry Hines 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave. Loach and producer Tony Garnett collaborated on the gritty script.

The scrawny Billy lives at home with his permissive, quarrelsome and inattentive mother (Lynne Perrie) and bullying lout of an older stepbrother named Jud (Freddie Fletcher), whom he is forced to share a cramped bed with and who for several years has worked as a miner; Jud’s only interests are going to pubs, gambling and being abusive to Billy. Mom was abandoned by both boys’ fathers, and feels like a train wreck and has abandoned any responsibility of being a good mom. Billy gets up 6am every day to deliver newspapers for a local store, money he uses to buy what he needs. But the boss is upset that he stole things before and can’t get to work on time, which happens whenever Jud takes his bike to go to work when he’s late, and is thinking of letting Billy go. The kid does poorly in his classes and is a terrible soccer player, which makes the pompous, buffoonish and bossy wannabe pro athlete who failed and became instead a phys-ed teacher (Brian Glover) unduly upset with him–taking his failure to achieve his goal out on the kids, as he tries living out his immature fantasy of being a pro soccer player through his teaching job by imagining he’s playing for Manchester United when he plays with the kids. The other teachers pick on him for falling asleep in class and for his negative attitude, where Billy openly displays his boredom. He’s also bullied by one of the bigger students named MacDowell. One day while wandering around the Yorkshire countryside, Billy discovers a kestrel’s nest in a wooded area and takes one of the fledglings from the nest as a pet. He nicks a book from a bookstore on falconry and uses that info to train the bird, and raises the young hawk that he names Kes in his backyard shed. After a long training period Billy bonds with the bird, as Kes has learned to return to Billy’s hand on command. The only teacher he has in the school with even an ounce of sensitivity, Mr. Farthing (Colin Welland), learns about Billy’s hobby during class when he gets the reluctant student to tell about his training of the bird in front of the entire class and later visits his house to encourage the youngster. Unfortunately the bird becomes the kid’s only source of joy and hope, and how long this will last in such a tough environment is dubious. When Jud asks Billy to bet with a bookie on a horse, Billy figures the horse will lose when he talks with the knowledgeable bookie and decides to keep the money instead of betting it. The horse wins, and as revenge Jud kills Kes.

Everyday life is unbearable for the youngster who is never given a proper chance to bloom by all those who stifle his development; his only demand is that he will not go “down the pit.” Otherwise he’s clueless about what he wants to do in life, as we see when he visits the apathetic and incompetent employment officer. But Billy’s leaving school for work at the end of the school year, and his prospects are dim. His reasoning is that at least he’ll get paid for doing something I don’t like, rather than attending school for no pay.

The naturalistic performances by the mostly nonprofessionals are tremendous and Chris Menges’ evocative photography gives the film the grim Technicolor coloring it needs to convey the reality of the dire situation. It’s heartbreaking to see a kid who had the potential to be a productive citizen but is not given that chance to prosper by an uncaring British school system and an ugly family life. The film speaks for the many marginalized children like Billy, who fall by the wayside due to neglect. It’s one of the most powerful films about what’s wrong with education and why education is perhaps the only way out for such youngsters, and the film’s progressive message is as relevant today as it was nearly forty years ago.

David Bradley in Kes (1969)