***This review contains mild spoilers (the ending is strongly hinted at)***
Whether big budgeted or operating on a shoe string I ask only one thing of a drama: Give me characters I can believe. I don't have to like them (Ethan Edwards The Searchers, Christopher Cross Scarlet Street, Travis Bickle Taxi Driver) but I do have to believe they are real breathing people, not phantasms created by a clever screenwriter. Kes gives me characters I can believe and then exceeds expectations. In fact, I have a hard time convincing myself there were actors involved at all. I've looked it up on IMDB and sure enough, there are actors playing the parts (David Bradley, Brian Glover), a writer (Barry Hines) and a director (Ken Loach). But I think it's all a ruse. You can't convince me that someone didn't take a camera into Barnsley, England in 1969 and simply film students, teachers and surrounding locals then edit it into a movie. That's how Kes feels.
I could give Kes a plot summary review but there wouldn't be much to say. It follows Billy Casper, local Yorkshire youth, as he wanders through school and life, finds a kestrel chick, trains it and improves his bleak outlook. But this film is wonderful for two things in particular: 1- It is meticulously observed on a personal level that gives it a feeling of absolute authenticity, and 2 - It is among the most unpretentious and unsentimental movies I have ever seen. Watching Kes made me feel (whether true or not) that films have forgotten how to observe a story instead of telling it. By that I mean rather than forcing us to feel or react in a certain way due to musical cues or camera set-ups the movie simply places the camera midground, excises the music and observes the action. I have nothing against telling the story, but I have seen enough stories like Kes ruined by a director intent on telling us what to feel rather than trusting that the story will take us there.*
Here is the tagline for the film: They beat him. They deprived him. They ridiculed him. They broke his heart. But they couldn't break his spirit. Whoever came up with that tagline didn't understand the film at all. It's not that it's not true, it's that it's true in the wrong way. Sure they couldn't break his spirit, but that's because he had none. He was resigned to a life of misery and despair, eventually relegated to working in a coal mine. His brother Jud works there and takes out his frustrations (physically) on Billy. Both of their lives seem pointless and hopeless and they have a mother who couldn't seem to care less.
Throughout the film Loach gives the viewer an insightful look into the failed social systems in Billy's life. His public school and career counselors all fail Billy spectacularly. Loach maintains a cinematic distance from all of this, employing mainly long and medium shots, only closing in on Billy and Kes as their relationship develops. And the washed out look of the film makes no shot pretty but not falsely deglamorized either. There is a greyness all around that befits the environment and story, if not the mood of the film.
And then there is the ending which on first viewing, and second and third, is jolting. This may sound like I'm trying to drive you away from the film rather than towards it, but this has to be one of the bleakest endings on record. And yet, there is a robust strength to the ending that resonates with the viewer long after the film is over. The ending is not bleak because of what happens but in how it is presented. What happens at the end has happened a dozen times in other movies with animals and if you haven't seen it you can probably guess what it is. What you can't guess is how it is presented or how it comes about. It is presented in such an offhand matter of fact manner with such a complete lack of goopy strings, of lingering close-ups or of a protracted conclusion that one walks away from the film feeling that one has just viewed the most horrible moment in an isolated child's life callously recorded for someone's home movie. It is unsentimental in the extreme.
I had not seen Kes when I did my original Oscar picks for the late sixties. Had I seen it before then I may well have chosen it as the Best Picture of 1969. In a recent British Motion Picture poll of the greatest British films ever made, Kes made it into the top ten, at number seven. The six films ahead of it were Kind Hearts and Coronets, Great Expectations, The 39 Steps, Lawrence of Arabia, Brief Encounter and The Third Man. I saw that list before seeing the movie and wondered what all the fuss was about. Why was a simple kitchen sink drama (a genre I admittedly love) ranked so highly along side these titans of British cinema? Now I understand. Completely. Hell - I'd rank it higher. See Kes if you haven't already. Then you'll understand too.
*(ahem, cough, Steven Spielberg, cough, cough).