Based on the 1968 novel, A Kestrel for a Knave, Kes is perhaps Ken Loach’s most universally beloved movie. Set in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, the film centers on the young Billy Casper (David Bradley), a 15 year old living with his mother (Lynne Perrie) and half-brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher). A misfit at home and in school, Billy spends his days wandering along the yellowing countryside where he dreams of a life that doesn’t include him going “down the pit”, like the rest of the men in the mining town.
One day, Billy finds a falcon’s next and takes home a small kestrel he names Kes. He steals a book from the village library and soon seems to master the art of falconry, which lead him to finally get some praise out of his teachers and peers. Then just as his life seems to be finding a purpose, things go wrong, leading to one of the most heartbreaking finales in any movie ever made. Said ending isn’t difficult to guess even if you’ve never seen the movie, given that it follows – perhaps it even invented – a structure for movies about kids and their life-changing pets.
Kes was only Loach’s second feature film and in it you can already see him developing a specific vision. Other than the fact that the score sometimes gives away the movie’s decade of origin, everything else in Kes feels rather timeless. Despite the fact that the movie could’ve indulged in stressing out how miserable these people in this town are, Loach never underestimates his characters and allows them to become real people in front of our eyes. He doesn’t judge, instead he seems just as amazed as us to realize that such beauty can even exist in the middle of this poverty.
He lets Bradley get used to the camera and soon, he becomes just as wonderful to watch as the bird. Both become objects of such carefree beauty, that we feel as if we’re intruding in their most private moments. The British Film Institute named Kes, “One of the Movies to Watch Before You’re 14”, and with reason, since the film so expertly captures the pains and surprises of growing up. The film’s influence can now be tracked to works like Billy Elliot and even E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial and it’s not a surprise to realize that it was also Krzysztof Kieślowski’s favorite film. There is such wisdom and sad beauty in Kes that after watching it, we can’t help but feel like we too lived it, some of its scenes haunting our very own childhood memories forever.