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Last Night I Watched: ‘Kes’

I think one theme that will define the 2020s is the relationship between humankind and the natural world. Throughout the last decade, hundreds of TV documentaries have been created – many of them by David Attenborough – exploring the natural world’s beauty and how humans can recklessly damage it. Whether you agree with their tactics, the success of climate change protesters has been to win over a broad cross-section of the population to fight for change. It begs the question as to where the role for humans lies in an uncertain natural world. Are we separate from the environment or an intrinsic part of its existence? For the answers, you need look no further than Ken Loach’s awe-inspiring Kes.

Released in 1969, the director’s second ever feature film follows the life of Billy Casper (David Bradley), a young boy in Yorkshire. Based on Barry Hines’ novel ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’, the film is set in a deeply industrial mining area full of tradition. Males were expected to leave school and work down the mines, which is the case for his older brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher). Loach, as is the case in all his films, captures the great levels of poverty that run through the lives of characters. Billy sleeps in the same bed as his brother, fails to regularly wash and lives in a very basic house. The best films show us the lives of characters instead of simply telling and this is always the case throughout Kes. There is no reason to know their family annual household income; their lack of wealth is obvious to all.

There is a great contrast in his town between the industrial factories and mines bellowing smoke at all hours of the day and the many surrounding fields undisturbed by humanity.

Billy’s relationship with nature is visible from the start. There is a great contrast in his town between the industrial factories and mines bellowing smoke at all hours of the day and the many surrounding fields undisturbed by humanity. The farms and natural areas present the perfect escape from Billy’s tricky life. However, Loach never portrays his characters as defeatist. Despite all his challenges, Billy still wants to get ahead in life and have some kind of future. He’s willing to take a tiring paper round even when it makes him late for school. Even though he can lack concentration, Casper still wants to try hard in lessons and appreciates what education can offer him.

It was shocking to watch the level of abandonment and neglect Billy experiences. Wherever he goes, nobody seems to care for his needs or offer any kind of help. As a child, he should be at the forefront of everyone’s attention. The reality couldn’t be more different. His mother (Lynne Perrie) and brother are more interested in their respective partners rather than their relative. Fellow pupils at his school offer little solace, at best ignoring him and at worst downright bullying him. And even fellow adults of the community provide nothing. Teachers have given up on him, regarding Billy as a failure. Other adults have no time for him, mainly because of his class background. The level of neglect appears unbelievable, except, whether in 1969 or 2020, it is all too true.

There is no reason to completely despair however. Loach’s films have always been hard hitting, gritty explorations of the realities facing individuals. That should be welcomed for exposing the truth and forcing individuals to confront unfairness. Nevertheless, all hope is not lost. Exploring a farm to escape the miseries of his daily life, Billy comes across a kestrel. In its flight, the bird of prey is most majestic and elegant. The relationship between the kestrel – known as ‘Kes’ – and Billy is a sight to behold. With just simple woodwind music, we enjoy the bird soaring in nature, exploring the local area and embracing the world. Thankfully, the bird returns to Billy, who begins training it. At last, Loach allows our protagonist to have some kind of purpose, something to work towards and devote his time to. The interlinking of nature and humankind is a wonder to behold.

Watching the film, I admired its gritty honesty. While things can improve, Loach understands that life is no utopia.

While he now has an animal to care for, carefully kept in a shed, Billy’s problems are far from over. Watching the film, I admired its gritty honesty. While things can improve, Loach understands that life is no utopia. The wondrous sight of the bird cannot override the structures in his life which don’t provide meaning. Desperate to borrow a book on falconry, the local librarian (Zoe Sutherland) refuses to sign a form, forcing him to steal a copy from the second hand bookshop. At school, his P.E teacher (Brian Glover) humiliates him in front of his fellow pupils because of his poor performance. It is only thanks to his care for the kestrel that Billy retains any motivation.

In a sense, the needs of the kestrel mirror those of Billy. Billy deeply cares and devotes himself to the kestrel, despite requiring help himself. The kestrel is regularly set free to fly around the environment, just as Billy wants his own personal freedom from his small town. However, the
kestrel always returns to Billy, staying within the set area. All our protagonist wants is some support and stability from others. It is damning how little he receives. How ironic that the devotion to his kestrel so differs from the absence of care within his own life.

Some human contact does eventually arise. After a school fight with a bully many years older, Billy begins talking to a sympathetic teacher (Colin Welland). He flies the kestrel with his teacher and finally has someone who listens. There is no judgement but full attention, accepting the boy’s eccentricities and his love towards this animal. The teacher, Mr Farthing, almost acts as a father figure that is otherwise vacant from Billy’s life, providing some much needed stability and leadership over how to behave and understands Casper’s idealism towards the future. It is wonderful to see how, by being given a chance, Billy articulates his love and romanticism towards the bird. His dedication towards this creature is a dedication like no other.

Money is the root of all evil: so the saying goes. It most certainly applies to the film’s conclusion. There are no happy ever afters, no exciting prospects. Instead, Billy’s failure to place a bet on behalf of his brother ends terribly. That his brother bets speaks volumes. It reflects the fatalistic, deterministic nature of society, with poor individuals relying on luck and courage to deliver prosperity. Secondly, that a child was allowed to do this highlights how society has transformed. Instead, Billy, rightly in my view, spends the betting money on fish and chips, selflessly feeding some of his portion to Kes. Upon discovering the horses the bet would have gone on won, Jud furiously looks for Billy before ruthlessly killing his bird. This is just devastating to watch. It all happens so quickly. The creature Billy has loved, nurtured, cared for, trained and provided so much peace is gone.

Just as the working class are not defeatist, Loach fantastically portrays their respect for dignity. Billy ensures that Kes’ remains are not simply dumped in a bin to be forgotten by all but that the bird is given a proper burial. It is, of course, the nest where Billy first discovered the kestrel flying in that farm. Watching the end of the film was deeply cathartic. As the hole was dug, I couldn’t help but have my views questioned over the extent to which humans were, at heart, animals. Kes also clarified my belief that we all require some form of meaning and purpose. As Billy began to refill the hole with soil, now containing Kes’ remains, I couldn’t help but feel strangely enlightened. Even though the bird’s life had been horrifically cut short, Loach’s early masterpiece shows me that the natural world can offer much hope, love and warmth when the human world is only miserable and hopeless.

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