Ken Loach’s Kes and Jane Campion’s Sweetie are our DVDs of the week

April 19, 2011

If we could get movies from only one source, we’d choose the Criterion Collection.
And they’ve been very good to us, here at BDA, after years of trying in vain to get on their mailing list, they relented last year and have been kind enough to send us advances of a lot of their new releases. These are the movies we get genuinely excited about.

As it happens today marks the Blu-ray debut of two extraordinary films, Ken Loach’s Kes (1969) and Jane Campion’s Sweetie.

The bitter, humorous Kes, is basically the story of the emotionally abused Billy Casper (David Bradley), a working class Yorkshire lad failed by family and the educational system, who is approaching school-leaving age and is staring at the prospect of a future spent in the mines. Billy is so poor he’s forced to share a bed with his twentysomething brother, and he throws a paper route before showing up at school to be bullied by his classmates and the headmaster Gryce.

The he “finds” a young kestrel hawk, that he feeds and trains. Billy studies falconry and comes to find fullfillingness through his relationship with the bird. The only sympathetic teacher, Farthing (Colin Welland) asks Billy to address the class on his hobby, which wins Billy a measure of respect and confidence.

But, of course, this being a bit of Ken Loach social realism, the world intrudes, and we’ve left with a moving, shattering tragedy — a meditation on the warping powers of human institutions. Kes is beautiful, sad and powerful — one of the best British films ever made.

And while I’m not given much to discussing technical issues, the tranfer here is vivid and beautiful. (Only one problem with this disc — Criterion should have supplied us with optional English subtitles, for the Yorkshire accents are, in the beginning at least, terribly difficult for most Americans to parse.)

It’s not the accents that are difficult in Campion’s debut feature Sweetie, it’s the domestic dynamic of this imploding Australian family, in particularly the toxic relationship between sisters Kay (Karen Colston), a simultaneously flighty and repressed young woman who’s terrorized by her smooth-running crazy sibling Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon), a spoiled and erratic would-be singer of no discernible talent. This is a highly visual domestic horror film, a sui generis experience that took Roger Ebert a couple of viewing to come to terms with. Maybe he said it best in his 1990 review of the film:

“In my reviews, I try never to discuss whether ‘you,’ whoever you are, will enjoy a movie or not. I do not know you and would not presume to guess your tastes. I imagine most people will have a hard time with Sweetie, simply because I did the first time. But this movie is real, it’s the genuine article, and it’s there on the screen in all of its defiant strangeness. Most movies slide right through our minds without hitting anything. This one screams and shouts every step of the way.”

1 Comment

  • Comment by kbenenati — Apr 21,2011 at 11:24 am

    My husband loves the Criterion Collection. You can find a lot of their titles at CALS.

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