Cult Movie: Ken Loach's Kes one of the greatest British films ever made

David Bradley, seen with his falcon Kes, is impressively naturalistic in the role of 15-year-old Billy Casper
Ralph McLean

RARELY has the harsh reality of working-class life been captured with quite the same poetic beauty and heartfelt honesty as it is in Kes (1969).

A naturalistic study of a young boy coming of age in the cold, hard surroundings of northern Britain in the late 60s, it remains one of director Ken Loach's greatest achievements. It also stands proud as one of his most beloved films. Watching the new Blu-ray special edition from Eureka Entertainment, it's easy to see why.

Fifteen-year-old Billy Casper (David Bradley) is a loner growing up on the unforgiving streets of Barnsley in a family where his mother (Lynne Perrie) ignores him and his older brother (Freddie Fletcher) beats him up at every available opportunity. At school he is picked on by his classmates and ridiculed by his teachers. His life, in other words, is miserable and hopeless.

A ray of light arrives for Billy when he finds a small kestrel falcon on the moors. He devotes all his spare time to training it and the two become friends before the oppressive world that surrounds them comes knocking to burst their brief little bubble of happiness.

Based on the Barry Hines novel A Kestrel For A Knave, Kes is a tough tale told with love and compassion. Loach takes what is on paper a profoundly downbeat storyline and offers hope for the downtrodden Billy. A classic story of the misfit finding a meaning in life, it's a rich and rewarding work that creates a magical world of trust and friendship without ever forgetting the grim realities of the world in which that magic unfolds.

Loach always teases out something special from his actors and on Kes he drew out a truly remarkable performance from David Bradley. Beaten and bullied, he is withdrawn through much of the film but his moments of defiance and the relationship he builds with his kestrel shine all the brighter for that.

The profound change that rearing a kestrel makes in Billy's dysfunctional life is genuinely moving to watch and much of the credit for that must go to Bradley for his impressively naturalistic acting.

The rest of the cast, many of whom were non-professional actors, turn in similarly unvarnished performances, with everyone from the sadistic teachers to Billy's brutal family shining through the Barnsley bleakness as both believable and real.

The town itself is captured with a beautiful coldness by cinematographer Chris Menges. The rain grey streets, corner shops and ever looming coal mines are caught in all their ultra-bleak glory. Together with John Cameron's wistful score, the visuals create an evocative picture of a broken Britain that predates the glum realities of working-class life today with alarming prescience.

Eureka have delivered a pristine restoration, supervised by Loach and Menges, and added a selection of extras that provide a depth and perspective that helps put the film in its social context. These include vintage chats with Loach and new interviews with David Bradley and producer Tony Garnett. The result is the definitive release for one of the greatest, most heart warming and downright iconic British films ever made.

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