Not really meaning to, I seem to have given myself a themed, mini film festival these last two nights by watching a pair of films, both of which were about the secret, inner lives of children.
The first was The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), set in a rural nowhere in Civil War era Spain. I’d put it on my Amazon list after seeing it mentioned as a possible influence on Pan’s Labyrinth, but this was my second watching, because after getting it on rental, I liked it enough to buy it. In the film, six-year-old Ana is deeply affected by a showing of the old Universal Frankenstein at her village cinema (where the screen is a rectangle painted on the wall, and everyone brings their own chair), and when her sister tells her that Frankenstein’s monster wasn’t actually killed because he is a spirit that lives in a nearby abandoned house, Ana starts visiting, and talking to, this gentle, invisible monster. But, rather than characterising her as a child, this seems, in the film’s world, to be putting her on her first step to adulthood, individuality, and isolation: Ana’s father, spending all his time in his study with his glass beehive, seems to live in a world of his own; her mother cycles regularly into town to post letters to a man (a brother? a former boyfriend?) who never replies. One day a wounded soldier, fleeing the Civil War, turns up in the abandoned house, almost like a realisation of the spirit of Frankenstein’s monster, and Ana starts to take care of him.
The other film was Kes (1969), which I put on my Amazon list after hearing Mark Kermode praise it, and realising it was another one of those films I’d heard so much about but hadn’t seen. Set in a pretty grim Barnsley, Kes is about a fatherless boy, Billy, pretty much a loner, ignored by his teachers and bullied by his much older brother. Resigned to getting nothing out of life, he’s nevertheless passionate, almost poetic, about a young kestrel he trains to feed from his hand.
Both films encase their young leads in private imaginative worlds, and both get remarkable performances in return. It’s amazing to think Ana in the first film is just six — in some of the later scenes her face seems ageless, almost ancient — while Billy in Kes looks already hardened against all that the adult world can throw at him. (Almost, but not quite.) In both films the kids find an intensely private focus for their burgeoning individuality and imagination, only to have it broken by the cruel harshness of an uncaring world. The difference is that, with Spirit of the Beehive, because Ana’s world was so much of the imagination to start with, even when events in the real world take it away from her, she’s still left with something. Kes is far more brutal and hopeless, but all the same I felt there was hope for Billy despite his obviously grim prospects, simply because he at least had something he felt strongly about, something that would always be there as a refuge against his unremittingly bleak world, which is more than can be said of his endlessly bickering, selfish, mother and brother.