Social commentary films have always piqued my interest. This little genre offers glimpses into lives foreign to our own. When mixed with a culture extraneous to the one that we know, it's a win-win combination – and that's exactly what we can expect from 'Kes.'
While studying film, I remember learning about the British New Wave and Free Cinema movements – stories about lower class folks damned in life and socially and economically oppressed simply because of where they grew up and the lives they were born into. But I had no idea that this form of film - also known as "Angry Men" movies - was ever produced showing it from the viewpoint of a child. If there were more, I am unaware of them, so 'Kes' functions on a unique level that I've never seen before.
'Kes' is a small film about a doomed little boy, Billy, living in a rural English coal mining town. Billy is, by definition, a bastard. His father split when he was just a baby, leaving him and his older brother Jud to be raised by their single mother. Billy and Jud share a bed in their humble home. Both rise early in the morning – Jud for his job in the coal mines and Billy for his walking newspaper route. While Jud works all day long, Billy goes directly from his route to school, but it seems that he'd rather be alone on his route than bullied in class by his classmates.
Because of his social circumstances, Billy is forced to live a life that most deem unruly – but for him it's the only way. He's always stealing and thieving little bits of food and milk, but that's what must be done to survive. At first glance, Billy looks like just another hoodlum, but he's really just a victim of circumstance fighting to stay afloat – but things are about to look upward.
While walking his paper route one morning, he crosses an old farm and notices a hawk gracefully soaring through the sky above the coal mine. Knowing the potential that trained hawks have, he steals a book about falconry from a local used bookstore with the hopes of learning enough to train one of the baby birds perched in a nest high atop the rundown brick farmhouse. Billy fills every moment of free time with preparations for this new adventure. When he finally feels confident, he climbs and steals away one of the little ones (that he names "Kes") and starts putting his new education into practice.
As Billy's training of Kes proves successful, his personal situation is bettered: he finally has a friend (even if it is just a bird), he's learned to do something that very few can do, he gains the admiration of townfolk as he walks through the streets with Kes perched on his arm, local butchers and shop owner freely give him meat scraps for Kes and he even gets one of his bully teachers to completely flip-flop. While Billy's interactions with Kes aren't helping his family's financial situation, it helps Billy's stance in society. It's a good start in breaking out of the damned state he was born into.
It's proven more often than not that we are products of our upbringing. With its slow and intimate pace, 'Kes' shows exactly what it might be like as a member of the damned youth of this town who's economy thrives on a dirty and depressing profession. Being part of the British New Wave, you can imagine how 'Kes' feels and how it ends, but it features a small bit of hope. People have broken away from these circumstances before, so you're watching with the end goal of finding out if Kes is a unique enough change to help Billy break the mold and defy expectations. 'Kes' isn't the most exciting and entertaining film out there, but it's honest and genuine enough to deem it worth watching.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion has placed 'Kes' on a Region A BD-50 in the typical clear square keepcase. Included is a booklet with stills from the film and an essay on director Ken Loach and 'Kes' by writer Graham Fuller. Absolutely nothing plays before the main menu.
'Kes' has been given a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer and is presented in the film's odd original aspect ratio 1.66:1. On HDTVs, this results in very thin vertical black bars on the sides of the image. While the picture has been drastically cleaned, it still features the minor flaws of a highly damaged 40-year-old film.
It's explained in the "about the transfer" section of the included booklet that the original "image itself was marred by distracting continuous vertical scratches." Criterion includes all the information on how they were removed, but some vertical scratches are still evident. Tiny specks of dirt and debris also still remain and there's a hair or scratch that appears on certain camera shots of a soccer game between the 46 and 49 minute marks. A few slight instances of DNR are visible, but the minor flicker of noise can be seen around the 102 minute mark.
Fleshtones are slighter warmer than usual in certain scenes. Nature colors are vibrant, while the rest of the film carries an overall earthy palette. 'Kes' carries the soft sharpness and lack of detail that you'd expect from a 40-year-old negative, but it doesn't look bad – just dated.
Two mono Dolby Digital audio tracks are included. The booklet includes a great explanation. "The American distributors of the film found the Yorkshire dialect difficult to understand and replaced a few sections of the original soundtrack with overdubs of the same actors modifying their speech." Considering it says that only "a few sections" are redubbed, you'd assume that the majority of the tracks are identical – but they're not. The conditions are different, each having different strong points. For this review, I bounced back and forth between the two tracks periodically throughout the film and found that the production dialog is stronger in the way of effects, but the vocals are weak. Dialog tends to blur together – and it's not just because of the dialect. However, the postsync dialog is much clearer, but the effects aren't as strong. The music mastered from the postsync is also stronger. The music from the original track is a little on the warbly side. If you flip back and forth between the two, you'll see what I mean.
No matter which option I used, I needed to turn on the subtitles in order to understand the dialog for the first half of the film. After that, for the most part, my ears were tuned into the dialog and the subtitles were no longer needed.
The one unifying characteristic of the two audio tracks is the clarity. Not a single crackle or pop can be heard.
If you're a fan of films that explore historical social themes, then now is the time to check out Ken Loach's 'Kes.' It's not the fastest nor the best film, but it's an interesting study of anthropology. The precise way in which it's shot is beautiful. Loach is a masterful director, and 'Kes' is a fine example of his abilities. Despite being meticulously cleaned, the picture quality still contains its flaws – but when you contrast that with the description of the nearly unwatchable damaged negatives used for the transfer, you'll be surprised to see it as clean as it is. It's a shame that the image couldn't be sharper. There are two different mono tracks to choose from, both featuring pros and cons. Luckily, neither is dirty. Not a single crackle or pop can be heard. Highlights of the special features include a new extensive making-of documentary, a 49-minute profile on director Ken Loach and Loach's entire 1966 BBC film 'Cathy Come Home.' Yet another great release from the Criterion Collection.