Presented in 1.66:1, the European standard of the time, Kes has been laboriously restored by combining the original camera negative and printing CRI with state of the art digital processing. Supervised by Loach and Menges, the transfer is remarkably sharp and rich, especially considering the inherent snappiness of the color negative stock in use in 1969. While some of the original elements were badly degraded and scratched, Criterion has remastered the film with such attention to detail Kes looks like it was filmed a month ago.
I’m happy to report the urge to create an ersatz 5.1 mix was thankfully resisted, thus the audio exists only in crisp, clean mono. The viewer has the choice of two versions: the original production dialogue or a tweaked incarnation that accompanied the film’s North American theatrical run. The latter features periodic dubbing, as some of the Yorkshire slang is replaced by more conventional idioms. But unless you grew up in Northern England, subtitles are mandatory regardless of the version chosen, and Criterion has thoughtfully provided them as an option.
This 45 minute documentary, produced specially for this release, re-assembles the principals for a thorough account of the many challenges, and outright miracles, experienced in bringing Kes to the screen. Director Loach describes in detail his techniques to create heightened realism and credits Czech New Wave directors Milos Forman and Jiri Menzel for providing his personal inspiration. Producer Garnett tells us just how close Kes came to being scrapped for financial reasons, and only a last second heroic phone call from Tony Richardson to United Artists in Hollywood allowed the production to continue. Most amazing of all, the film was made almost entirely with non-professional actors culled from open casting sessions held at Yorkshire area schools. Proving their performances in Kes were no fluke, many of these “unknowns” went on to long careers in film and television.
The Southbank Show
An episode of this long running BBC arts program honoring the career of Ken Loach is included. Presenter Melvyn Bragg examines the Loach filmography with an emphasis on the director’s social consciousness. In addition to Loach, the program features interviews with Stephan Frears and Alan Parker, who declares that Loach’s work “reminds me of why I became a filmmaker.”
Cathy Come Home
This early work by Loach and Garnett, produced in 1966 for the BBC series Wednesday Play, is a thematically and stylistically absorbing drama worthy of a stand alone release.
The story concerns the whirlwind romance of a young hitchhiker (Carole White) and a free spirited lorry driver (Ray Brooks), set amid Britain’s severe affordable housing shortage of the 1960s. The film is an emotionally charged, no-holds-barred look at the plight of those caught in the slipstream of greedy developers and uncaring bureaucracy.
Watch for the great Geoffrey Palmer in one of his first roles, as a snooty estate agent you just want to throttle. Cathy Come Home is a moving, heartbreaking film that clearly shows the perils of a middle class pushed to the limit. Writer Graham Fuller provides a thoughtful post-film analysis of the political issues raised in Cathy Come Home, plus historical perspective on the social significance of Wednesday Play as a television series.
Those wishing to delve deeper into Graham Fuller’s encyclopedic knowledge of all things Ken Loach will enjoy his well written essay featured here. The booklet also includes a selection of stills from Kes, along with in-depth notes on the extensive restoration efforts undertaken to make this blu-ray edition a reality. Beautifully designed and printed on quality stock, the booklet makes a fine, and informative, keepsake.
Kes’ original British trailer is included, and it too has been restored to pristine glory. The trailer is noteworthy for presenting the film as a fairly conventional rural melodrama; brimming with fistfights and sentimentality. It managed to omit just about everything that made Kes unique and fresh, but I suppose such was the state of movie marketing in 1969.
Kes can rightfully be called a marvel, without the slightest hedge or qualification. Ken Loach and his team have created a slice-of-life for the ages, with a truer sense of the vagaries of society than any time capsule could ever hope to convey. The film overpowers all resistance and transports the viewer to rolling green hills, damp asphalt playgrounds, oppressive classrooms and dingy coal mines deep in the bowels of Earth. Not by magic, but by Loach’s stubborn insistence on absolute authenticity. Billy Casper’s attempt to train a wild bird is not so much an effort to master nature, but to unify with it, as nature offers his only visible means of escape from the unfair and peculiar strictures of the British social order. Though steeped in the distinct traditions and impenetrable accents of Yorkshire, Kes is a film that achieves a universal resonance through settings and performances that astonish with their unshakable, rough-hewn conviction.