Sometimes we are feeling morose or distracted. We go through our days absentmindedly. Then suddenly, we see a thing or a person that lights up our face. It makes us feel alive again. Kes is a film about that thing, or rather that bird. It is a film by British director Ken Loach from 1969. It revolves around a working-class 15-year-old boy named Billy who lives with his single mother and abusive elder brother in South Yorkshire.
Everybody around Billy does blue-collar jobs. Even Billy will have to do one as he is being taken out of school soon. Yet all these people have their own escapes from their daily lives. Like his physical education teacher, who acts as a referee and captains a side in the same game. He beats the children comfortably by pushing them out of his way. All the children can do then is watch his beaming smile when he has scored a goal. Later the teacher forces Billy to take a cold shower when he lets a goal pass that leads to the other team’s victory. He is not allowed to get out even after pleading desperately. Eventually he just gets out by climbing over the wall.
That is when your heart aches for him. You know that his condition is a result of neglect on the part of his teachers and family. It is not his fault at all. He hasn’t been treated like a kid for so long that he has forgotten that he ever was one. You are just about to shed a tear for him when you realise that he himself isn’t crying. You realise that it isn’t that big of a deal for him. He accepts it as a part and parcel of his daily life. He just wants to quickly get to his escape.
That escape is his kestrel, named Kes. He can take in all the bullying if it allows him to spend an hour a day to just train her and let her fly. Though she is all he has, he does not force himself upon her. He knows it is demeaning. He just wants to keep Kes by his side and see her in all her glory. Throughout the film, Billy almost feels like a 40-year-old guy returning home after a 12-hour shift from the hellish mines below the earth, who cannot bear to look or appreciate any beautiful thing above it now. The only thing that prevents him from becoming that man is Kes. He is more proud of Kes and the training he gave her than he is of himself. He can allow anybody to mock him as much as they want but not her. Which is why he does not even talk about her to any of his so-called friends. He knows how far up he had to climb to grab Kes from her nest and he does not want a mockery to be made out of it. But when he is ultimately forced by his teacher to speak about Kes, you see how he transforms into a lively child again. He is for the first time talking about something that he is really into and not removed from the moment for even a second.
Billy’s brother beats and abuses him a lot. He is the one that tells him that he will have to start working in the coal mine after he leaves school. At first, when you hear that, you think of him as cruel. But then you realise that he just does not want to be alone in that darkness. He just wants his brother to be there with him even if they can’t see each other’s faces properly. But he cannot become vulnerable enough to say this in a straightforward manner. So he has to resort to sarcasm. Even in the end when he kills Kes, it is not because he hates Billy or Kes. It is because Billy did not do what he asked him to: bet on horses. He just wanted an escape for himself for a few days with the tiny sum that he would win from gambling. But Billy snatches that escape away from him by spending the betting money elsewhere. So he takes away Billy’s escape, Kes, and thinks it is tit for tat. He becomes his own brother’s executioner, as Brando might have put it. That is when Billy, who earlier seemed somebody beyond crying, cries like a petulant child.
All in all, I feel that Loach was successful in capturing the cynical normalcy that exists in our everyday life without resorting to cheap sensationalism. Most filmmakers would have used tragic music to show Billy’s pitiful condition, but Loach just uses the chirping of the birds in a way that we start imagining them getting blinded by the smoke from the factories. He shows us that in our world, the people that are oppressing others have also been oppressed.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.