Knave of Hearts: Ken Loach’s Kes (1969) – Masters of Cinema Blu-ray review
The standard-bearer of British social realism, because Loach finds the perfect balance between specifics of time and place and a still-potent resonance.
(Ken Loach, 1969)
The 1960s was one of the most potent periods in British cinema, yet how many at the time realised that perhaps the era’s finest movie snuck in quietly, under the radar, during the decade’s last year. The contemporary icons were Schlesinger, Richardson and Anderson, all of whom had either won the Oscar or the Palme D’Or by 1969. Meanwhile Ken Loach’s film was more understated, and in the shadow of his fiery, compelling TV work like Cathy Come Home.
Today, it’s very different: Kes is an acknowledged masterpiece, the defining film not only of Loach’s career but of the tradition of British realism, and an enduring inspiration. Yet in some ways it’s atypical: its social comment is shorn of the agit-prop commonly associated with Loach and its visual style has a mesmerising simplicity, hovering like the kestrel between the grounding of documentary and a mythic England, its landscapes rolling hills and colleries, the green and pleasant land of William Blake.
It’s a film of its time, and yet timeless. Clearly, this is a portrait of the failure of social mobility, even in a more progressive, well-meaning time where building new estates and new schools would solve poverty – but this becomes a backdrop, the story told through action and image: the callousness of teachers, the inherited rage and desperation of Billy Casper’s brother Jud, the tangible divide between scruffy Billy and the smartly-suited grammar school boy, just as disobedient but likely to come up trumps in life because he passed the 11-plus.
And then there’s Kes, and everything the bird represents: a sense of respect and responsibility, a camaraderie of self-sufficiency. It’s surprising how little screen-time Loach devotes to scenes of training – the comic football match easily outlasts it – but it’s precisely the avoidance of big set-pieces in favour of incremental snippets that gives the film’s best scene (where Billy finds his voice explaining his passion to his classmates) its power. Can you imagine how awful the film would be with a standard-issue training montage?
It’s the film’s rhythm that is most remarkable, that sense of a series of setbacks plaintively counterpointed by the still centre provided by the kestrel. Billy is always running but it’s not through exhilaration – he runs because he’s late, or in trouble, or because he’s told to. In contrast, when he’s with Kes he doesn’t move, safe in what the teacher describes as a “pocket of silence.”
So it still works as a parable – and yet the sadness at the film’s heart has only grown deeper with time. For all that is familiar about the world Billy inhabits, late 1960s Yorkshire is strikingly different to our own era. Despite Billy’s neglect, this is still a sense of community here, seen in the charmingly innocent conversations he has with strangers on the street, or the Saturday night at the local club. That world was destroyed by Thatcher’s attack on mining, and you wonder: did Billy go down the pits? Did he continue to work with animals? Did he find a trade?
It’s disconcerting to note that, in Loach’s latest film – I, Daniel Blake – the title character shares Billy’s love of the BBC Shipping Forecast. Billy today would be – what, late 50s, early 60s? Daniel Blake’s age. They could be the same man. What’s truly tragic about Kes is that, compared to life now, Billy had it easy back then.