In 2014, Ken Loach made what was widely thought to be his final film, Jimmy Hall. Yet here is the 79-year-old director with a new movie, I Daniel Blake, which has been screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Is this the last time the English filmmaker will cast his eye on the economically and politically marginalised? We should hope not.
Loach has surprisingly never had a career retrospective at a major Indian film festival. His stridently political themes and unvarnished portraits of working-class lives are likely to go down well with older Indian cinephiles who are familiar with parallel cinema. Loach has been humanising the invisible sections of society and pushing forth their politics and concerns since the late 1960s. Perhaps I, Daniel Blake, a critique of the medical benefits system in England, will jog programmers into re-examining his career highs.
There are plenty of early works to choose from among Loach’s kitchen-sink realism and leftist-minded explorations of working class culture, which find echoes in the works of contemporary English directors such as Shane Meadows and Andrea Arnold. Looks and Smiles (1981) is a blistering attack on the Thatcherite era through the story of an unemployed young man who lives with his parents. Riff-Raff (1991) is a beautifully observed tragicomedy set on a construction site where various labourers, including Robert Carlyle’s Patrick, face the everyday realities of being poor and forgotten in London. In the disturbing Ladybird Ladybird (1994), a woman who has four children by different fathers battles the government’s Social Services department, which wants to place her family in foster care. Land and Freedom (1995) is a period production that examines the Spanish Civil War through the story of a British Communist soldier. Among the more recent films is the Cillian Murphy starrer The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006), a stirring account of the early years of the Irish war of independence.
At the top of the list is Loach’s international breakthrough, Kes (1969), an unforgettable portrait of a 15-year-old boy’s heroic attempts to take charge of his messy life. Billy (David Bradley) is what the welfare system would call a juvenile delinquent: he has been in trouble for running around his Yorkshire borough with a gang of boys and stealing small items. Although Billy has left the gang, he is not above filching eggs and milk when he can.
One of Billy’s honourable thefts is a book on falconry from a second-hand shop. Billy does try to get a library membership, but when confronted by the rules and regulations of a place that is not designed for his class of people, he finds it easier to steal. Throughout Kes, Billy always tries to do what is right, but is forced to take the easy way out when faced with rejection or incomprehension. He is the epitome of scrawny dignity, and is brilliantly brought to life by David Bradley’s completely unselfconscious performance.
Billy has trained wild creatures before, including a fox and jackdaws, but he is hooked by the sight of kestrels gliding silently across the sky. He brings home a small bird, names it Kes, and trains it to take food off his gloved hand and fly on a leash. Billy’s limited vocabulary expands to include words related to falcon training. In one of the movie’s most moving sequences, the normally tongue-tied and distracted lad is asked to give a presentation on his efforts by a supportive teacher, one of the few in Billy’s school who does not talk down to him. For once, Billy is the target of admiration rather than ridicule in his classroom.
However, we are far removed from wish fulfillment fantasies and greeting card sentiments. As soon as Billy is out of the classroom bubble, he is picked on and beaten up by the loutish members of his former gang.
The documentary-style filming and Loach’s pursuit of art in the service of truth result in a stunningly naturalistic depiction of the mining community in Yorkshire. There’s humour and warmth too in the scenes in which a band sings dirty ditties in the pub that seems to be the only source of entertainment for the townsfolk (a tradition beautifully depicted in the 1960 movie Saturday Night, Sunday Morning). A football match at school becomes a hilarious commentary on the English obsession with the game. The beleaguered headmaster tries in vain to discipline his wriggly wards through a combination of bombast and the cane.
Billy’s love for animals and birds is an attempt to flee the negativity at home and school as well as embrace the joys of nature in a heavily industrialised landscape. Most of the men of Yorkshire disappear into factories and mines as soon as they are able, and Billy’s ecstatic sprint across the woods with his kestrel is a reminder that the pleasures of the English countryside are not only for the well-heeled.
“It’s wild and it’s fierce and it’s not bothered by anybody,” he tells the teacher about his bird. A diamond in the rough despite his unstable ways and profane speech, Billy is wise beyond his years. His mother calls him a “hopeless case”, his older brother Jud bullies him, and he seems to have no friends. “Yer couldn’t train a flea,” Jud scoffs. But as Kes vividly reveals, Billy doesn’t lack imagination or intelligence but the opportunity to be a free bird, just like his beloved kestrel.