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Film / Kes

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Kes is a 1969 British drama film directed by Ken Loach, based on the novel A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines. It starred (relatively) unknown actors with perhaps a handful that people might recognise, which has led to the movie being categorised by film historians as a social realist movie. It was Loach's second film that he ever made and became a Breakthrough Hit when released, although the thick-accented characters made the film stumble a little outside of the UK.

In the mining town of Barnsley in Yorkshire, fifteen-year-old Billy Casper (David Bradley) is the child pariah of the area. He is bullied at home and school by everyone, making his mother feel as if she can never understand him. This is probably because Billy has a history of stealing, but has left it behind him (although he'll occasionally steal some eggs and milk), and nobody wants to trust him. With the whole world seemingly against him, Billy becomes interested in kestrels and uses his skills of deception, sneakiness, and theft to try and train his wild-caught bird for falconry.

His passion and achievement in his new hobby win Billy some respect and friends at school, but unfortunately not with his own family.


  • Character Development:
    • For Billy after he adopts Kes the Kestrel. He steadily comes out of his shell, but his overall dissociated attitude doesn't change too much.
    • Some minor development is given to Mr. Farthing, who starts off as sceptical and dismissive of Billy as the other teachers, but he quickly warms up to the lad after seeing his electric passion for falconry and witnessing for himself the extent to which Billy is unfairly ostracised at school.
  • Child Hater: The teacher characters are very likely this, given how they constantly treat their students.
  • Crapsack World: Downplayed. The portrayal of Northern England in Kes isn't exactly pretty.
  • Delinquents: Billy is a former one and we follow him on the road to change, although that doesn't stop him from relapsing.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: Billy. He finds his purpose after he meets Kes.
  • Disappeared Dad: Billy's father left the family when Billy was a young boy; his mother believes that growing up without a father has contributed to the lad's apparent lack of direction or ambition.
  • Downer Ending: Jud kills Kes. Billy gives the bird a funeral by the hills where he used to train with her.
  • Hate Sink: While Billy's brother Jud is probably the most despicable character, his mother and teachers aren't far behind.
  • Hidden Depths:
    • To every other kid in school, Billy's kestrel training hobby comes off as this, especially since he's usually so quiet and boorish. When he makes a presentation showing his passion for it, the other kids start paying more attention to him.
    • Billy is also remarkably acrobatic.
  • Karma Houdini: Jud gets no comeuppance for murdering Kes aside from losing out on the week's unpaid leave from work he could have taken with his racing winnings and being weakly told off by his mum, which is a pretty regular occurrence anyway.
  • Kids Are Cruel: It's rare to find a kid that is nice to Billy.
  • Kitchen Sink Drama: From the regional accents to the bleak ending, this is definitely a social realist film.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Kes is obviously short for kestrel, the name of the species of the bird.
    • Billy's name is likely derived from the phrase "Billy No-Mates" in reference to his isolation. Continuing off of this, his surname, Casper, could possibly be an ironic reference to a certain friendly cartoon ghost. Although Downplayed slightly, as he does have a few friends, but none of them are very reliable.
  • Oh, Crap!: Billy's reaction when he learns that Jud would have won £16 had he placed the bet. note 
  • Oop North: This film is set in Yorkshire, and the characters speak in the local dialect.
  • Precision F-Strike: One use of "twat" and several uses of "bugger" was enough for the British censors to argue over whether the movie should be rated as suitable for all or a PG. It later settled on a PG.
  • Sadist Teacher: Nearly all the teacher characters in Kes are portrayed as very cruel, tyrannical people who constantly abuse their power and look for any excuse to punish or scream at a student, even for coughing.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: The PE teacher seems to think he's hot shit at football despite being overweight and shorter than most of the boys in his class, treating the football game as Serious Business and blatantly breaking the rules to get an edge (although the team of which he appoints himself captain still loses 2-1).
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The film's score is overall very light and whimsical, which heavily contrasts against the bleak setting and tone, though it does help to keep the film from sliding into total soul-crushing nihilism.
  • Sucky School: In Billy's school, nearly all of the teachers are as cruel as his bullying fellow students.
  • Teens Are Monsters: Jud. When Billy doesn't put Jud's bet on, he retaliates by murdering Kes. Jud's age is uncertain, but Freddie Fletcher was 19 when the film was made.
  • Token Good Teammate: Out of all the teachers, Mr. Farthing is the only one to ever stick up for and empathise with Billy, even going so far as to give the schoolyard bully MacDowell a taste of his own medicine. He's easily the most likeable supporting character in the picture.
  • World of Jerkass: Excluding Billy, Kes, and one of Billy's teachers, Mr. Farthing, every other character in the movie is shown to be a callous, cruel, and unrepentant Jerkass with zero empathy who like to go out their way to make Billy and the other kids' lives miserable.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Most teachers in Kes like to yell at kids for very minor infractions and even slap them or hit them with a cane, as was common practice in schools throughout the early to mid 20th century.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: Perhaps one of the cruellest in even Ken Loach's library, but at virtually the exact moment things start to look up for Billy, his own half-brother spitefully murders Kes, bringing the boy back to the miserable, passionless existence he had at the story's beginning.