Made in Yorkshire: The brilliance of Kes (1969)
It’s kind of pointless to give an introduction to Kes; particularly if you’re from the area, it will be the first film that comes to mind when someone says ‘Yorkshire-set film,’ but for the uninitiated, Kes was directed by the master of social realism, Ken Loach, who is still making films today. His last effort was Sorry We Missed You, which is based around a delivery driver living in poverty, but the story of Kes centres on something quite different.
The titular Kes is not the main character, as you might think, but a kestrel adopted by the film’s protagonist, fifteen-year-old Barnsley lad Billy Casper. The film is adapted from the 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave (which, full disclosure, I have not read). But I have seen Kes, and on the surface, the story of a boy living in a poor area finding meaning while caring for a bird might sound the kind of heartwarming fare you’d seen in a Disney movie. Kes, though, is much more morose than those sort of films, concerning itself far more with loss and familial tensions than the animal-human relationship.
Like much of Loach’s work, those tensions stem from the fact that Billy lives in a city marred by poor government policy which, historically, has neglected the North of England, and the people in the area who uphold those norms such as teachers, social workers, and so on. Billy is caught in the middle of all of this: he is in education, but his career choices are fairly narrow. His brother is a miner, and his bitter personality prevents Billy from going down that path; he could work in a shop or become an apprentice, or take on various other reliable career paths, but none of these solve the issue at the film’s heart: Billy’s experience in his hometown has made him want to leave.
In Kes, Loach puts forward a cynical worldview. The film is bookended by two moments of tragedy: the first of Billy sleeping in the same bed as his brother having been up working at the same time as he needs to go to the mine; and the second of Billy finding out his brother has killed the Kestrel.
Like much of Loach’s work, those tensions stem from the fact that Billy lives in a city marred by poor government policy which, historically, has neglected the North of England
The symbolism in Kes isn’t as subtle as in other anti-capitalist films, like Kyoshi Kurasawa’s Tokyo Sonata, which has a relatively similar theme, but the ease with which Kes can be understood democratises the artform: Ken Loach isn’t making films for college graduates and academically-minded people; he’s making films for those represented by his work, and he’s not talking down to them. This democratisation of art is the reason Loach has remained popular over the years.
On top of that, Kes doesn’t approach its subject matter from a distance, in a chin-stroking manner; Loach puts the audience right in the middle of it, engaging them emotionally and putting them directly in Billy’s position. Films like Kes are ones which could really only be set in ex-mining communities (or, in the context of Kes, a current mining community), because there were few other places in the UK in which poverty and social inequality were like blankets covering the entire area; social inequality exists in other areas, of course, but the South – London, Cambridge, Oxford, etcetera – exist in two halves, and this is why social realist films in those areas are based around the conflict between the rich and the poor, whereas ones set in the UK’s devolved nations or the North of England will be about existing with it – and how that affects the self and the people surrounding it.
Ken Loach’s film is the purest, and most effective, example of this. Kes has retained classic status over the years because of the finer details included in the simple tale of a boy and his Kestrel.