In the late 1960s in England there was a film movement known as British New Wave, which focused on middle and working class characters rather than the upper crust British subjects who had largely dominated the country’s cinema. Director Ken Loach and his producing partner Tony Garnett, who’d been making topical dramas for the BBC, felt like even the British New Wave films that were being made avoided the harsher realities of working class concerns, and set about raising money to adapt a recent novel by author Barry Hines, A Kestrel for a Knave, to the screen for their feature film debut.
The book is set in (unnamed) Barnsley, a depressed coal mining city in the northern Yorkshire region of England where Hines was raised, and focuses on a young man, Billy Casper, who’s shy, withdrawn, and picked on at school and at home. He has an interest in training falcons and, upon finding a nest, decides to train one himself. Loach and Garnett worked with Hines to adapt his novel to a screenplay, found the money to shoot a low budget adaptation and began casting. For this, they largely drew on locals and schoolchildren who were attending the schools that Hines himself had attended growing up in the region, lending the film an air of authenticity to the point that it can at times almost be mistaken for a documentary. This, in addition to hiring a cinematographer who had largely worked in documentaries, was a conscious decision on the part of Loach and Garnett to give it the appropriate feel.
Cast in the lead role, 15 year-old David Bradley is remarkable as Billy, bringing his own personal experiences of a troubled family life and living in a city with few prospects for young people to bear on his performance. There’s never a moment where you don’t believe him, where the seams of Acting show through to take you out of the moment. So when he’s killing time after school, wandering through the woods and doing nothing in particular, it’s dead-on, drawing the interior life of this young boy who has clearly spent more time in his head than out playing with friends. This gets him into trouble at school, where he’s often busy daydreaming and not listening in class. But in the tender scenes where he’s found his kestrel and begun training it, a film that could have been a deadening experience shows that his interior life is something fascinating; and Billy himself comes to life on screen when halfway through the film Mr. Farthing, the solitary teacher at his school who is portrayed as sympathetic to him, asks him to tell the class about his falcon and he becomes a subject of interest to the class rather than an outsider to be mocked. Things are still rough for him though – his father is absent, his brother is abusive and alcoholic, his mother indifferent and too caught up in her own life to lend the necessary support to the boy she refers to as a “hopeless case.” Teachers and fellow students alike pick on him and isolate him for being poor, for daydreaming in class, for not fitting in. In some respects it’s a tough film, but like everything Loach does, it’s keyed on respect for its working class heroes, however downtrodden they may be.
The film is a beautiful portrait of youth in difficult circumstances, filled with a love for its central character that spills over into larger concerns about fostering the interests of youth rather than discarding them when they don’t fit a certain mold. The heavy accents of the locals may require for some viewing the film with subtitles – as in several Loach films, he doesn’t generally try to “clean up” the accents of his characters for mass distribution and there’s a story that when the film was screened for American film executives at United Artists they left the screening stating that they could understand Hungarian better than the accents here. Still, the film’s ideas are universal, and the film itself has only gained in stature since its release, currently ranking seventh in the British Film Institute’s Top Ten British Films. And Loach has continued his working class concerns throughout his career, from his BBC films that tackled hot button issues like abortion (Up the Junction) and homelessness (the excellent Cathy Come Home, included in this DVD set), up through his Palme d’Or winning films The Wind That Shakes the Barley and last year’s I, Daniel Blake. He’s one of the giants of British film, and his debut is as good a place as any to start exploring his work.
- Patrick Brown