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Blu-ray Review: Kes

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Kes, director Ken Loach’s classic 1969 film about a boy growing up in a mining town in northern England, has finally come to Blu-ray in the form of a special edition from The Criterion Collection. In America, this is the first time the film has been widely available in years, though it’s considered one of the top 10 British films of all time by the British Film Institute.

Casper (David Bradley), a scrawny, sensitive boy growing up in a rough middle class neighborhood. He’s faced with a bleak world, and an even bleaker future down in “the pits,” the mines in which his brother works and dominate the town. Most of the teachers in his school are strict and unyielding. He’s already dismissed as a lost cause. He finds solace in the form of a wild kestrel. Casper raises the bird, bonds with it, spends endless hours training it to fly free and then return to him. These sequences, especially, are photographed and edited with a truly elegant beauty that captures both the beauty of the bird’s flight, and Casper’s special bond. Casper’s relationship with Kes offers a faint glimmer of hope, but can it last?

Though this is might seem to simply the story of a boy and a bird, this isn’t a children’s film. It’s the story of a boy caught in a system that threatens to devour him alive.

Though technically not an independent film, Kes was shot with a grittiness and authenticity that still offers lessons for filmmakers today. Loach’s direction of the largely non-professional cast, including the young lead, was top-rate. It was shot on location in Barnsley, the setting of the book on which it was based, Barry Hines’ A Kestral for a Knave. Hines also wrote the screenplay. Special mention should also be made of John Cameron’s moving score, simple yet powerful, and never overstated.

This new Blu-ray edition, which is also available on DVD, offers the prerequisite “beautifully restored print,” supervised and approved by Loach and Director of Photography Chris Menges. Built using contemporary technology from a variety of sources including original camera footage, will be most appreciated during those scenes shot out amongst the green belt surrounding Barnsley.  This is the lush English countryside of legend, breathtaking in it’s beauty, even with the massive mining facilities looming in the distance.  This 1080p restoration brings this film back to it’s full impact, perhaps for the first time since its original theatrical distribution over forty years ago.

Kes’s original manaural audio tracks have also been restored and brought up to modern standards.  Previous editions have been marred by noisy, sub-standard treatment – distracting in a film that at times allows the audience to apprecaite the quiet moments that can mean so much.  Those moments, so clearly part of the filmmaker’s vision, are finally achieved here.

This edition features two alternate audio tracks.  The original, with it’s Yorkshire dialect, may prove difficult for some to understand.  To faciliate American distribution, an alternative track was recorded shortly after the film was completed, featuring the original actors adjusting their speech to be more clearly understood.  This post-sync dialogue is quite good, but naturally offers less presence than the original on-location tracks.

Other features include a “making of” film, which is primarily a talking head documentary about the film and it’s history, supplementary footage highlighting Ken Loach’s career, and an accompanying booklet tracing the history of the film and it’s legacy.

Kes is a film that should be on the list of anyone who cares about effective, socially relevant and impactful filmmaking. Those interested in reading more about the story behind Kes and it’s impact will also enjoy the book, Life After Kes, by Simon W. Golding.

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