Billy Casper (David Bradley), dirty-faced and shabbily dressed, already futureless at 15, lives on a housing estate in Barnsley, a coal mining town in Northern England. He sleeps in the same sagging bed with his abusive older brother and is generally dismissed by his put-upon mother. He steals cigarettes and junk food while completing his daily pre-school paper route. Puny and sullen, Billy is ridiculed by classmates and reprimanded by the teachers, often for imaginary infractions.
The character could have been easily been belittled, stereotyped by the filmmaker, but here Billy’s story is stripped of sentimentality. “Kes” (1969), based on Barry Hines’ novel, “A Kestrel for a Knave,” is a soaring masterpiece, directed by the great Ken Loach (who, over a career of more than four decades, has produced an undidactic and cinematically rich body of work dealing with political and social injustice ).
Although it’s been endlessly reinforced that he’s intellectually lacking, and Billy himself says he can barely read and write, it’s wildly untrue–his intelligence, quickness and ambition survive in surroundings that see his potential as no more than necessary unskilled labor.
Billy is determined to capture and train a young kestrel hawk he’s spotted in a nest in the woods and these are scenes of beauty, contrasting with the grimness of Billy’s home, town and school, all shot in natural light by the great DP Chris Menges. Unable to navigate the rules required to borrow a book from the local library, Billy steals one from a shop and pours himself into training his beloved Kes.
Mr. Farthing (Colin Welland), the sole teacher to show interest in Billy, asks him a question and as he discusses how he caught and works with Kes, mesmerizes the sympathetic teacher and his surprised classmates.
Farthing visits Billy at home and watching him work with Kes–the teenager says, she is “flying in a pocket of silence”–and immensely moved by the totality of the experience, exclaims, that it’s the “most exciting thing I’ve seen in my life.”
“Kes” was made with a cast of unprofessional actors (with the exception of Welland), speaking in their Yorkshire accents, which can sometimes be unintelligible to American ears. But while some specifics might be lost, the ideas and emotions are palpable.
“Kes”opens today at Film Forum for a one-week run. Critic Graham Fuller, co-author with Ken Loach of the book “Loach on Loach,” will introduce today’s 7:40 pm show. The film is a must-see.