By Richard Winters
My Rating: 6 out of 10
4-Word Review: Boy trains a kestrel.
Billy (David Bradly) is a poor working class youth living in Yorkshire who finds his existence to be bleak and pointless. He is bullied constantly by his older brother Jeb (Freddie Fletcher) and ignored by his burdened mother (Lynne Perrie) while also being picked on at school. As means of some solace he finds a nest of baby kestrels inside an abandoned building. He takes one of them and keeps it in his backyard shed where he trains it, which in return gives him a sense of purpose.
The film is based on the novel by Barry Hines who also wrote the screenplay and although the plot is basically the same it does vary in two major ways. The first one being that in the book everything takes place in one day and with a lot of use of flashbacks to explain the backstory, which I liked better, but here it’s given a linear narrative. The book also explains a bit more about the otherwise absentee father and even has one scene involving him while here the character is non-existent and never even mentioned.
On a purely cinematic level it is well made and nicely exposes Billy’s hopeless working class world without ever being heavy-handed. The drama is fresh and natural with each scene and character ringing true. The segments involving the training of the bird is the most engaging and I wished had been extended.
The children are fantastic without being too cute or precocious and respond to things in ways that are honest to their nature. The adult cast is good as well although not as likable. The teachers and school administrators, with their very old fashioned approach to discipline, come off as genuine jerks. At one point one of them even raps the open palms of the children’s hands with a cane, which makes their eyes well up with tears and is unpleasant to watch.
The worst is the segment involves Billy’s physical ed. teacher Mr. Sugden, which is played by Brian Glover who was an actual high school instructor at the time as well as a former wrestling. Here he plays a coach who brutally bullies his students in a scene that makes its point and then goes on too long with it. I also didn’t like that director Kenneth Loach superimposes the score of the soccer (football) game that the students are playing onto the screen, which wasn’t necessary as who wins the game was not important at all and hurt the film’s realism by distracting the viewer and taking them out of the story.
Some have complained about the thick dialect of the characters, which makes it hard at times to understand what they are saying. Certain American versions have been dubbed to make the lines uttered clearer although the version I watched, which was from the Criterion Collection, seemed to have the original accents intact, which I preferred as it kept it more authentic and for the most part I didn’t have any problem with it.
The only real issue that I had with the film is its downbeat ending. I realize that it is the same as the one in the book, but felt a bit frustrated that every time there is a movie dealing with a child taking care of an animal it always for some reason has to end in tragedy, which made it a bit formulaic. The kid never gets a break and having the falcon get killed at the end was like rubbing salt into the wound. The bird that actor Bradly buries apparently died of ‘natural causes’ but at the time he was under the belief that it had been killed simply to suit the purposes of the film and the angry reaction that you see on his face was very real.
End of Spoiler Alert!
My Rating: 6 out of 10
Released: November 16, 1969
Runtime: 1Hour 50Minutes
Director: Kenneth Loach
Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video
Good review, though I think you underplayed how well-done this story is; it really is a classic. I see what you’re saying about the ending being stereotypically sad, the bleak implications of the boy’s future at the end broke my heart. I guess what I’m saying is that it worked for me, as not all endings need to be optimistic and happy and put a positive spin on things. That said, I get your point; when it comes to animals I always give a horror or thriller bonus points if they subvert stereotypes and don’t kill the dog.
I liked this movie a lot more than you did; I have a weakness for British social realism type movies (yes, I know that this was actually Scottish.) If you like Ken Loach, I highly recommend “Sweet Sixteen,” though it won’t offer much in the way of a happy endings.