There will always be an England, but which England? This week’s home video releases include two acclaimed films — “The King’s Speech,” which focuses on British royalty and the upper crust of the aristocracy, and “Kes,” about a teenage boy from the lower depths of English society, the coal mining region of Yorkshire, in the north.
While many Americans are enthralled with the British monarchy, and have been for many years, I’ve always been among the “off with their heads” crowd. Yet even I was moved by “The King’s Speech” (Anchor Bay Entertainment/The Weinstein Company, $29.98/$39.99 Blu-ray, rated R), Tom Hooper’s poignant film about the Duke of York, the future King George VI (played by Colin Firth), and his struggle in the 1930s to overcome his stammering with the help of a commoner, and an Australian to boot, the speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).
This Academy Award winner for best picture, director (Hooper), actor (Firth) and screenplay (David Seidler) is, at its core, what Firth humorously describes as a “bromance.” In the DVD documentary “The King’s Speech: An Inspirational Story of an Unlikely Friendship,” the actor says the film follows the basic structure of a romantic comedy: “It’s boy meets therapist, boy loses therapist, boy gets therapist.” The movie offers a sharp depiction of the gulf that existed between the aristocracy and the common people, which the Duke of York — called “Bertie” by his egalitarian therapist — needs to overcome or cross in order to benefit from Logue’s treatment.
But “The King’s Speech” also excels in its characterization of the major figures in the Duke of York’s life. Apart from his loving wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) and two young daughters, most of the others were problematic, especially his harsh father, King George V (Michael Gambon), the stuffy Archbishop of Canterbury (Derek Jacobi) and his brother David, the future King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce). It is David’s involvement with a twice-divorced American, Mrs. Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), that leads to his abdication and Bertie’s ascension to the throne.
The portrayal of the David-Wallis relationship and its impact on Bertie is one of the highlights of “The King’s Speech,” even though Hooper says in his DVD commentary that he didn’t want this relationship to “hijack” the main story. For many years, the saga of the monarch who gave up his crown in order to marry the woman he loved was treated as a great and wonderful romance. Hooper restores another aspect of their relationship: Both Simpson and the man who had become the King of England were Nazi sympathizers, admirers of Hitler and friends with Joachim von Ribbentrop, Germany’s ambassador to Britain. To have them on the throne at a time when Britain and Germany were moving towards war was simply anathema to the country’s political leaders.
“The King’s Speech” ultimately celebrates the valor and patriotism of English leaders like King George VI and Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall) and the value of breaking down class barriers, as in the friendship that forms between Bertie and Lionel. The England of Ken Loach’s “Kes,” on the other hand, is a society where advancement upward from the working class is nearly impossible and where petty adult tyrants (teachers, shopkeepers, minor government officials) routinely abuse and neglect its working-class youth.
“Kes,” from 1969, was selected by the British Film Institute as one of the 10 best British films of the 20th century, yet its release this week on home video by the Criterion Collection ($29.95/$39.95 Blu-ray, rated PG-13) may be the first opportunity many Americans will have to view it. Based on Barry Hines’ novel, “A Kestrel for a Knave,” “Kes” is about a 15-year-old boy named Billy Casper (David Bradley), small for his age, who leads a miserable existence in the cramped home he lives in with his neglectful, overworked mother (Lynne Perrie) and abusive older brother (Freddie Fletcher), a coal miner, with whom he has to share a bed.
School isn’t any better, as Billy, an indifferent student, has already been tracked into a school for children who will not continue their studies and will most likely (among the boys) find future employment working in the mines. Billy and his fellow students are treated with contempt, and in some instances, suffer physical abuse, from most of their teachers and the school’s principal. The students aren’t very nice to each other, either.
But Billy is able to find one positive thing in his life when he discovers a kestrel, a small member of the falcon family, in a nest in an abandoned medieval monastery. He obtains a book about falconry, studies it religiously and painstakingly trains his bird to fly away and return to him on command. In one of the film’s most exhilarating scenes, Billy reveals his dedication and expertise to his classmates when his one supportive teacher encourages him to describe something he enjoys doing.
“Kes” was the first major feature film directed by Ken Loach, an unabashed leftist who went on to have a significant career making movies about working-class life, social injustice and the civil wars in Ireland and Spain. In America, Loach’s best-known films include “Riff-Raff,” “Ladybird Ladybird,” “Land and Freedom,” “Sweet Sixteen” and “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.”
As he explains in the excellent DVD documentary retrospective, “Making ‘Kes,’” Loach’s goal was to “represent ordinary life on film in all its complexity, comedy and sadness — to have a social context to it.” So, in addition to filming entirely on location in Barnsley, a coal mining town in Yorkshire, Loach and producer Tony Garnett put together a cast of non-professional actors, most of whom they found in Barnsley. (The one exception was Colin Welland, a professional actor who plays Billy’s sympathetic teacher, Mr. Farthing.)
David Bradley gives a startling performance as Billy. He actually trained the kestrel we see in the movie, and he captures on screen what Loach initially saw in him: “He had an interior life which was full of imagination and very touching and very funny.”
Loach, Garnett, Bradley and cinematographer Chris Menges all contribute to “Making ‘Kes,’” and they offer fascinating accounts of the film’s creation, inspiration (particularly the early ‘60s Czech films of Milos Forman and Jiri Menzel), financing problems and distribution difficulties. (The North England accents of the cast were initially deemed unfathomable to audiences in other parts of Britain by movie exhibitors.) Eventually, it was the success of “Kes” at international film festivals, including Cannes, that got it released throughout Great Britain and, in a limited run, the United States. An informative DVD essay by film historian Graham Fuller elaborates on all of these matters as well.
Looking back on “Kes” from a vantage point of more than 40 years, Loach points out that the coal mines of Barnsley were closed in the 1990s and that the English working class has changed as well, especially in its ethnic and racial diversity and in the types of jobs working people can find these days. But the director is still indignant over the treatment of working-class youth, in England and elsewhere.
“This isn’t how the world has to be,” Loach says. “You don’t have to destroy all the Billy Caspers every generation for the world to keep turning.”
THE KING’S SPEECH
Cast: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi and Eve Best
Director: Tom Hooper
Writer: David Seidler
Distributor: Anchor Bay Entertainment/The Weinstein Company
Cast: David Bradley, Freddie Fletcher, Lynne Perrie, Colin Welland, Brian Glover and Bob Bowes
Director: Ken Loach
Writers: Barry Hines and Loach (based on Hines’ novel, “A Kestrel for a Knave”)
Distributor: Criterion Collection