Sunday, May 04, 2008

Pantheon movie of the month - KES

Recent viewings of a few Mike Leigh films and the costume drama ANOTHER COUNTRY sent me back to KES. Why? Well, like Mike Leigh, British director Ken Loach concerns himself with sympathetic, realistic portrayals of life in the under-class. In KES, Loach straightforwardly adapts Barry Hines' novel, "A Kestrel for a Knave". It's the tale of a teenager living in rural poverty in Yorkshire in the late 1960s. He's the butt of casual ill-treatment at home and institutionalised ill-treatment at school. The schoolboys may have been privileged in ANOTHER COUNTRY, but the arbitrary meting out of violent justice is the same as in KES. The tragedy is, of course, heightened here because the kid has no chance of succeeding in life if school doesn't work out. There's no fall-back position - no second chance.

If KES is a great film it's not just because it chronicles the in-built inequality of the education system. Viewers come back to it, and critics love it, because it pulls off that rare feat: it is deeply tragic without ever feeling manipulative, mawkish or sentimental. Our protagonist manages to take a shy step toward happiness and purpose when he starts training a kestrel. He's even encouraged by a kind teacher. I can't describe how gratifying it is to watch this poor kid actually take centre stage in front of a black board and gain the respect of his class-mates as he tells them about his hobby. Of course, Loach can't resist grim reality and the denouement is heart-breaking. Truly heart-breaking because you feel that the tragedy is credible and probably commonplace. Young kids, with bags of potential, slip through the cracks, not just because of indifference but because of active cruelty.

KES was released in 1970 and is available on DVD.

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