Monday Movie: Kes, by David Bax
Angry art wielded in service of a specific sociopolitical agenda is rarely subtle (even when it’s good; see Sorry to Bother You or listen to Billy Bragg for proof). The same generally goes for movies about child/animal attachments (those can be good too; see Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion or Duma). Why, then, does Ken Loach’s Kes feel so small and graceful, and not the least bit manipulative, before the culmination of its simple details crashes over you?
Loach had only made one feature film before Kes, 1967’s Poor Cow, but his career since then has been a constant stream of movies advocating for social and economic justice. Yet, in most cases, he’s succeeded not by the strength of his political arguments but by adhering to the formula he established here, patiently and empathetically aligning himself and the viewer with the characters, not their causes. He’s a passionate director who makes you understand the ardor of his beliefs by truly loving the men, women and children whose lives and struggles he depicts.
Kes is the story of a Yorkshire boy named Billy, whose innate anger and delinquent tendencies are in no small way tied to his being a poor kid in one of the poorest counties in England. When his mother calls him a “hopeless case,” she could just as well be talking about a whole generation. After Billy steals a kestrel (a type of small falcon) from a farm, his connection to the bird gives him a sense of purpose for the first time. The formerly truant ruffian is now eagerly studying books (which he’s also stolen) about falconry. One little bird has given him a sudden reason to care about his own life. Kes is a staggeringly inspirational movie but, be warned, it’s also a devastating one. Loach is too much the realist and the polemicist to let you leave on a happy ending.