As Ken Loach’s Cannes-garlanded I, Daniel Blake continues to draw audiences and make headlines, Masters of Cinema bring us a timely Blu-ray revival (in the shops today) of Loach’s beloved second film. Indy Datta runs the rule.
Kes is one of those goldilocks films where every element is just right, and working in harmony with all the others. Ken Loach, working with producer Tony Garnett, had honed his documentary style of social-realist film making on the BBC’s Wednesday Plays to the point where his work was completely free of phoniness. Barry Hines’s novel, A Kestrel for a Knave, which Garnett first learned of as a work in progress when trying to convince Hines to write for the Wednesday Play, was not only perfectly attuned to Loach’s sensibilities but a fine, sinewy, lyrical work in its own right – the adaptation by Hines himself as well as Loach and Garnett is notably faithful, scene-for-scene, and line-for-line of impenetrable Yorkshire dialect. And in Barnsley schoolboy David Bradley (later professionally known as Dai Bradley) Loach found the perfect embodiment of the novel’s protagonist Billy Casper, fierce and wild, pitiably vulnerable, capable of so much more than the world had in mind for him.
Hines’s novel was directly inspired by his own brother Richard, thrown on the scrapheap at 11, warehoused in the toxic grimness of the secondary modern school system (while Barry made it to the sunny uplands of the grammar schools) until the state had discharged its bare obligations to him, who came to realise his own potential through his self-tutored expertise in falconry (Richard later trained the three falcons used in the film, named Freeman, Hardy and Willis, and became a documentary film maker in his own right). We can probably blame Hines and Loach for the now prevalent and careless Brit-film cliché of the deeply-felt symbolic bond between the feral kid and the feral animal, but in the case of Kes, the deep feeling, the authenticity derived from reality, faces down the cheap symbolism and wins.
Loach’s method, refined and considered through his prior work, is vital to that. The joy that we feel at the sight of Billy working with the kestrel (and just as penetratingly, when Billy, prompted by the rare non-awful authority figure in the book, the teacher played by Colin Welland, tells his classmates about his obsession, movingly transcending his learned inarticulacy) arises directly from the evident lack of artifice in the images, the sense that Bradley is living through these moments, and not faking them. Moments like these are as close to perfection as Loach’s films get – rhetoric and poetry, reality and sublimity in perfect balance.
The Eureka disc has substantial extras, which largely differ from those on the Region A Criterion offering. Both versions are therefore obligatory purchases for fans of the film. The additional materials here are almost entirely composed of talking heads – a Guardian interview of Loach by critic Derek Malcolm around the time of Hidden Agenda and Riff-Raff (interesting for students of the British film scene – a capsule of a time when it was basically accepted that British cinema was dead), a panel discussion from the Bradford film festival for the film’s 30th anniversary, featuring Loach, Garnett, Barry Hines and others, and a series of newly filmed interviews, the most interesting and moving of which is with Richard Hines.
But the main event is the disc’s picture quality (reportedly much superior to the Criterion’s), which beautifully reproduces the way Chris Menges’ cinematography captures the griminess and darkness of the built world depicted in the film, and then the rapturous beauty, the tangible lift of the soul when, still in sight of the slagheaps and pitheads of South Yorkshire, the sun breaks through , catches the green of the woods and the fields, the arc of a bird in flight, and brings the very air back to life.