Kes

United Kingdom, 1969

Directed by Ken Loach

With David Bradley (Billy Casper), Freddie Fletcher (Jud Casper), Lynne Perry (Mrs. Casper)

Second attempt to make a movie feature and second cinematic adaptation of a novel: after Nell Dunn two years earlier, Barry Hines, who put Yorkshire on the map of contemporary English novels with his distinct accent, turns one of his most important books into a screenplay for director Ken Loach, two years after his debut “Poor Cow”. The title, “A Kestrel for a Knave”, tells it all: Billy Casper is a poor boy and budding delinquent who one day makes up his mind on training a young kestrel he captured in the countryside (the story is a reference to “The Book of Saint Albans”, a treatise on the pastimes befitting gentlemen and noblemen in medieval times, likening to each social rank the bird that should be trained by the members of this rank; written at the end of the 14th century the book is one of the first texts ever printed in England).

A boy, a bird, a broken hope: David Bradley

The relationship between the boy and the animal shapes the narrative as the animal helps the boy to find his voice in what is a hostile environment to him. Kes the kestrel is the object of much care and devotion for Billy while the film highlights how tough it is for Billy to get same care and devotion from the folks around him.

The opening sequence presents what may be his main problem: an awkward and contentious relationship with his elder brother, Jud Casper, who is no longer a teenager and is already a miner. There is no love lost between them, and the modest income of the family does not help, nor does the inability of their mother, Mrs. Casper, to assert any authority (the father has vanished). The violence underlying this dreadful family life would lead to the final tragedy for the bird and his owner.

Money is always lacking and filching is the easy option for Billy Casper to get what he needs. The downside is the bad repute that goes along with him everywhere he goes, starting with shopkeepers. His appearance betrays the consequences of poverty and neglect, from clothes in poor state to filthy hands, and it sets him even more apart from the other characters.

School is the place where his confrontation with society’s expectations gets harsher. His physical weakness is cruelly laid bare (quite literally) in soccer training, owing to a PE teacher who is a stickler for rules (and a pathetically arrogant guy). A strong disciplinarian mindset prevails over the teaching staff as the system is geared to enforce a class system leaving few options to the kids’ aspirations.

Yet one of the teachers gives the opportunity to Billy to explain what he is doing at his spare time – and the speech to his classmates is incredibly eloquent, leaving a strong impression on his audience, both onscreen and in the theater. The enthusiasm is echoed in the moments he spends with Kes which are so graciously shot. These scenes bolster the impression felt earlier when Billy started his endeavors to train Kes: the first steps were carefully shots in close-ups over the voice of the boy reading corresponding extracts of a book on falconry he stole. The one who barely cares to read and write at school is the same to apply the best knowledge and the strictest discipline to his passion. Standing on the lower rungs of the social and intellectual ladder, perhaps, but still able to master skills and to live in full: so is Billy, the boy deserving our respect even as the society fails him.

Unlike “Poor Cow”, no real attempt to documentary-like filming is made and the director keenly embraces the beauties of nature. He sticks to the viewpoint of Billy, highly sensitive to his needs, frustrations, and passion. An adverse effect may be a portrait of the adult world a little too scathing, but his concern for a realistic portrait of the living conditions of a small mining town is so serious that the movie never seems off the mark. His decision to shoot on location (in the Yorkshire town of Barnsley) with non-professional actors (in fact, people from the place) proved to be a great one and the genuine ring it gives to the film makes Billy’s fate even more heartbreaking.

Second attempt to make a movie feature and second cinematic adaptation of a novel: after Nell Dunn two years earlier, Barry Hines, who put Yorkshire on the map of contemporary English novels with his distinct accent, turns one of his most important books into a screenplay for director Ken Loach, two years after his debut “Poor Cow”. The title, “A Kestrel for a Knave”, tells it all: Billy Casper is a poor boy and budding delinquent who one day makes up his mind on training a young kestrel he captured in the countryside (the story is a reference to “The Book of Saint Albans”, a treatise on the pastimes befitting gentlemen and noblemen in medieval times, likening to each social rank the bird that should be trained by the members of this rank; written at the end of the 14th century the book is one of the first texts ever printed in England).

The relationship between the boy and the animal shapes the narrative as the animal helps the boy to find his voice in what is a hostile environment to him. Kes the kestrel is the object of much care and devotion for Billy while the film highlights how tough it is for Billy to get same care and devotion from the folks around him.

The opening sequence presents what may be his main problem: an awkward and contentious relationship with his elder brother, Jud Casper, who is no longer a teenager and is already a miner. There is no love lost between them, and the modest income of the family does not help, nor does the inability of their mother, Mrs. Casper, to assert any authority (the father has vanished). The violence underlying this dreadful family life would lead to the final tragedy for the bird and his owner.

Money is always lacking and filching is the easy option for Billy Casper to get what he needs. The downside is the bad repute that goes along with him everywhere he goes, starting with shopkeepers. His appearance betrays the consequences of poverty and neglect, from clothes in poor state to filthy hands, and it sets him even more apart from the other characters.

School is the place where his confrontation with society’s expectations gets harsher. His physical weakness is cruelly laid bare (quite literally) in soccer training, owing to a PE teacher who is a stickler for rules (and a pathetically arrogant guy). A strong disciplinarian mindset prevails over the teaching staff as the system is geared to enforce a class system leaving few options to the kids’ aspirations.

Yet one of the teachers gives the opportunity to Billy to explain what he is doing at his spare time – and the speech to his classmates is incredibly eloquent, leaving a strong impression on his audience, both onscreen and in the theater. The enthusiasm is echoed in the moments he spends with Kes which are so graciously shot. These scenes bolster the impression felt earlier when Billy started his endeavors to train Kes: the first steps were carefully shots in close-ups over the voice of the boy reading corresponding extracts of a book on falconry he stole. The one who barely cares to read and write at school is the same to apply the best knowledge and the strictest discipline to his passion. Standing on the lower rungs of the social and intellectual ladder, perhaps, but still able to master skills and to live in full: so is Billy, the boy deserving our respect even as the society fails him.

Unlike “Poor Cow”, no real attempt to documentary-like filming is made and the director keenly embraces the beauties of nature. He sticks to the viewpoint of Billy, highly sensitive to his needs, frustrations, and passion. An adverse effect may be a portrait of the adult world a little too scathing, but his concern for a realistic portrait of the living conditions of a small mining town is so serious that the movie never seems off the mark. His decision to shoot on location (in the Yorkshire town of Barnsley) with non-professional actors (in fact, people from the place) proved to be a great one and the genuine ring it gives to the film makes Billy’s fate even more heartbreaking.

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