Monday, August 1, 2011

Animal Cruelty

Film: Kes
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

There are times when I watch something and I wonder not what I was thinking, but what the director was thinking. Then again, there are times when I appear to know precisely what the director was thinking all along. I’m going to warn you now that this review will contain spoilers; as usual, I will warn you with a tag when they show up. However, once you get the basic gist of what this film is about, I’m fairly confident that you’ll be able to figure out the spoilers on your own without my assistance.

Kes has been sitting in my instant queue since the day it became available instantly, and while I’ve been meaning to watch it for a few months, I’d never found the right moment until tonight. It was finally just time to get it off the list. I knew the basics going in, and figured on pretty much how the story would play out, and damn me if I wasn’t pretty much right from start to finish. This film explores much the same basic territory as earlier films like How Green was My Valley as well as later films like Billy Elliot and the more recent Fish Tank.

Young Billy Caspar (David Bradley) is the quintessential Yorkshire juvenile delinquent. His father is dead, and his home life is a terrible shambles. He is consistently bullied and brutalized by his older brother, Judd (Freddie Fletcher). His mother (Lynne Perrie) considers him a hopeless case and spends her evenings in the bars, leaving young Billy on his own. His school life is not any better. His teachers and the administration of his school are even more bullying and brutalizing than his brothers. It’s ugly and nasty. It’s the exact sort of thing parodied in a number of Monty Python sketches. Funny there, terrifying here. Truthfully, Billy earns some of this. On his daily paper round, he steals things off a milk cart.

Things change for Billy when he discovers a nest of kestrels on a nearby farm. Unable to get permission to borrow books from the local library, he steals a book on falconry from a used bookstore, and then goes and takes one of the birds from the nest. Using the book, he begins to train the small hawk, giving him something that is for himself and something that makes him truly happy. This gives him the first real praise he ever gets at school, when he is forced to give a talk on his bird in one of his classes. Of course, just before this he has his hands whipped by the schoolmaster for smoking, and just after he gets in a fight with a larger boy, but for the first time, he has someone to stick up for him: his teacher.


Of course, with a bullied kid who has something special, beautiful, and fragile, it’s not that difficult to figure out where things are going to end up. Billy manages to piss off his brother by not placing a bet on a horse for him—a horse that managed to come in. Judd, unable to take out his rage on Billy, kills Kes. Billy, whose horizons have been opened up a bit, leaves to bury his bird rather than stay for the confrontation.

Dammit, I hate this. I really do. I said a couple of months ago that it seems like coming of age stories focus on two different things. For girls, coming of age seems to always be about sex of one sort or another; girls can’t become women until they discover sex. For boys, a coming of age always centers on the death of someone or something special to them. Fellow blogger Dr. Blood commented recently in a review of Drag Me to Hell that animal death, even when necessary to the plot, is something disgusting. I agree. I knew it was coming and it still did nothing to brace me from the anger of that moment. I want movies to take me away from this sort of senseless violence, not force me to watch it. I want an ending that the film deserves, not one that sees an act of cruelty left to fester.


Kes, for as much as it pisses me off, is a beautifully shot film. But I really wanted a lot more of Billy and Kes. I wanted more of the flying scenes, because these are really something special. The soccer game, which proves to be just another humiliation for Billy at the hands of one of his sadistic teachers, goes on for what feels like 10 minutes. We get the gist of the scene much more quickly—the gym teacher is a complete bastard who seems to dislike children in general and who takes out his own frustrations on his charges. Billy is uninterested in the game and is chastised (and mildly brutalized) because of it. We get it; Billy’s life sucks.

I want more of the joy. I suppose in a very real sense that it's logical that the joy comes sporadically and then quickly. But that to me was the heart of the film, not the stupid soccer game or the lecture about smoking.

Final analysis? Filmgoers love animals. Filmmakers hate animals.

Why to watch Kes: It’s a truly beautiful film.
Why not to watch: Because you should probably watch Billy Elliot instead.


  1. We all had to watch "Kes" when I was still at school. It was part of the curriculum but what it taught us I have no idea. It put me off ever wanting a bird as a pet though.

  2. My wife is a bird person, so we've had several. I never really liked having birds as pets until we got our first dove. She was a really special animal, and she bonded to me.

    We have two doves now, and I like them as pets. They aren't aggressive and when they are noisy, at least the noise is kind of soothing. And doves are much hardier than many birds--for years we couldn't use non-stick cookware because most birds are so sensitive.

  3. I've picked this one up a couple of times only to put it back down. I may give it a go soon. I'd honestly never heard of it before I saw it on the list.

  4. Same here.Evidently, across the pond everyone sees it.

  5. I finally watched this today from the Instant queue. I had a very hard time understanding what anyone was saying, especially the older brother. I actually came here to see if you had seen this film yet and to warn you to get the DVD version instead where you can turn on the subtitles. Oh well. (I just read that the accents were so heavy that they even subtitled this film in England when it was first released to theaters.)

    I agree that it was obvious where the film was going. That's a big part of the reason I hadn't watched it until now. I also agree that the film needed some editing. The soccer scene you mention is actually over 15 minutes, and then there's at least another 5 minutes both before and after where the coach is yelling at him for not having gym clothes, then for not showering up.

    1. On April first, NetFlix had a series of joke film categories for streaming customers. One of them was "Films in English that still require subtitles." I imagine Kes was on that list.

      Editing would have been good here, yes. There's fat that needs trimming.

  6. I've watched about half of Kes. Two things come to mind.

    1) Is everybody in Yorkshire an asshole?

    2) Why didn't Monty Python make fun of this? I see Eric Idle as the boy, Terry Jones as the mum, Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Michael Palin as various abusive and stupid British authority figures, and the kestrel animated by Terry Gilliam.