Billy Casper (David Bradley) lives with his mother and older brother in a house so small and with funds so limited that Billy and Jud have to sleep in the same single bed. For money, Billy delivers newspapers. To him, classes are a joke and the goalposts in a football game double as a personal jungle gym. But he’s a good kid, like some of his classmates also probably are. Even when he steals, he does so with purpose: he cannot get a library card to rent a book on falconry.
It’s this seemingly unnatural interest in a kestrel that he takes in as his own that propels Ken Loach’s Kes (based on Barnsley native Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel for a Knave), now more than 40 years old but still one of the signature films of the “lost youth” subgenre that’s also highlighted by Louis Malle’s Au revoir les enfants and Françoius Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. While the bird-as-escape-tool symbolism is obvious, nothing else in the story (a heartbreaker by its end) is heavy-handed.
At glance, the antagonist of the film seems to be anyone older than Billy. While many of the adults in the film might be characterized as disagreeable or even villainous (see: the gym coach who berates the students and locks Billy in a shower stall with pneumonia-level cold water, more or less because he can; or Jud, who does unspeakable things when Billy inadvertently spoils a bet of his), they are not to blame for the blueprint--years of social mores are. And Billy, young yet aware, knows this.
Like any film with a youth in the lead role, much of its power lies in the cast actor, who must possess the presence and talent that the director needs. This is especially so in Kes, where Loach employs little actual visual style (no insult) and instead needs Bradley to be honest enough to express Billy’s needs. And he is. Bradley gives what is probably the most natural performance by a male child in the history of film, up there with Sean Nelson in Fresh and Jean-Pierre Léaud in The 400 Blows.
The South Bank Show (49:07): This 1993 episode of the series serves as a thorough profile of director Loach and includes interviews with Garnett, filmmakers Stepen Frears (Prick Up Your Ears, The Queen) and Alan Parker (Midnight Express, Angel Heart) and more.
Cathy Come Home (1:17:15) is Loach’s 1966 film shot for BBC’s anthology series The Wednesday Play. “It shows the visual grittiness and the sociopolitical commitment that would be hallmarks of the work of Loach and Garnett throughout their careers.” Also included is an afterword by film writer by film writer Graham Fuller, who also wrote an essay for this Blu-ray’s booklet.
Also included with this Criterion Collection Blu-ray is a 20-page booklet with an essay titled “Winged Hope” by film writer Graham Fuller.