Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: KES

by: Joshua Brunsting
April 19th, 2011

Lists are great for conversation starting, but when it comes to a subjective medium like film, they don’t serve much of a purpose otherwise. Whether it be the AFI Top 100 films, or any random list you and your friends make up, not every member of, or its position on, a list will be a universal choice. A perfect example of this concept is the rather brilliant 1970 Ken Loach film, KES. Placed on the British Film Institute’s list of the ten best British films of the century, the film is now not only seeing a release on stunning Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray, but has also become one of the more polarizing additions of the said collection.

Yet another coming of age tale found within the Collection, KES, based on the novel A Kestrel For A Knave by Barry Hines, follows the story of Billy, a miner’s son who, at the age of 15, sparks a friendship with a wild bird, who becomes his way of escaping his dingy life back home.

The film stars David Bradley and, as with any Ken Loach film, the performances become the true star. Bradley is remarkable here as the young Billy, and absolutely drowns this performance in a strong sense of naturalism that, for a post-1960s “Angry Young Man” film, is absolutely remarkable. Seemingly coming from a really personal place for the filmmaker behind the picture, this performance gives the right amount of melancholy that a child searching for a way out would ultimately steep his life in. The supporting cast here, including Freddie Fletcher, Lynne Perrie, and Colin Welland, are all fantastic as well, but the film rightly rests directly on the shoulders of Bradley, who ultimately carries them with a sense of naturalism all his own.

When speaking about a Ken Loach feature, that word "naturalism" is the first word that comes out of most people’s mouths, and KES is absolutely no different. The film does truly feel like a personal work for the director, and one that has an equally moving visual style that truly aids the narrative, with both being fueled by this sense of isolation. From shots to a bird flying high in the sky, to ones of our lead, Billy, standing out in a field all alone, asking for the right to get to where these birds are, this film is wonderfully telling in its filmmaking. A Masters class in showing, and not telling, this is filmmaking 101, and proves to be Loach’s most timeless work.

However, visually, all would be for naught if it weren’t for cinematographer Chris Menges' beautiful photography.

Hitting all of the right notes, Menges drenches the film in vivid colors ranging from the reds of a book in a library to the greens of a field, to oppressive browns and earth tones whenever our young protagonist returns to his equally unappealing life. It’s a telling sense of style that is only heightened by the wonderfully crisp Blu-ray upgrade that Criterion has given this iconic British masterwork.

That said, this isn’t a film for everyone. A meditative slow burn, the film has a distinct style that, for those who aren’t fans of more naturalistic coming of age tales, will be the bane of your existence. The accents are tough, the narrative much less rewarding than most films, KES is a character study that looks at a character we all know, we all once were, but through a vivid and lively lens that for those who go with it, will be gripped from the first frame to the last. Just don’t be afraid of the subtitles for this one, if need be.

As a release, a film of this stature deserves the best of supplements. Now, while the release does desperately lack a commentary (something a film like this could really stand to have), what we are given is a varied, and truly deep collection of supplements that not only add to the depth of KES as a film, but also the people, particularly Loach, involved with the project.

The best and most intriguing feature added here is the 77-minute long drama that Loach helmed for the BBC, CATHY COME HOME. The film, directed in 1966, was one of many that the director helmed for The Wednesday Play, and has the same naturalistic style that Loach would later make famous in his theatrical features. It’s a wonderful insight into a filmmaker who was just burgeoning at the time, and one that would ultimately become one of the greatest British filmmakers of his time.

A documentary, entitled Becoming KES, gives the viewer a really in-depth look at the creation of this wonderful film, including interviews with Loach, Menges, and others involved with the project. A film like this is a perfect example of a film that deserves a making of documentary, and thankfully, Criterion has given us one a pitch perfect one. Finally, for those looking to learn more about Loach himself, there is a 1993 profile on the auteur, and is an absolute must-watch for those who find themselves truly going along for the ride with KES.

Those who decide to ultimately do that, this will be one of the most moving rides you’ll go on in some time. Arguably Ken Loach’s best film, KES is a powerful look at a young man looking to simply get away, destination be damned. Featuring eye-popping cinematography and a visual style brewed in a pot of melancholy, KES may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it sure as hell is a strong one. And this is sure as hell a strong Blu-ray release.

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