There are pockets of whimsy in the Ken Loach filmography, but following 2009’s Looking for Eric, he seems more fully than ever to be embracing an Ealing-inflected lightheartedness. The Angel’s Share starts off in reasonably familiar territory, as a succession of poor, unemployed Scots have their petty crimes recounted in court, and the community service sentences passed down. All crew cuts, tracksuits, and impenetrable Glasgow accents, the stage is set for some grubby grim-up-northness, but Loach’s film turns out to be anything but.
It turns into a caper, as four of the sentencees, led by Robbie (Paul Brannigan), first find a way out of their dead-end lives through an interest in malt whiskey, then hatch a pretty basic plan to nab some of an impossibly rare cask that’s turned up in the Highlands. Despite a couple of early scenes of violence, the environment of hardscrabble working-class existence increasingly cedes center stage to the banter of the group and the execution of their plan. A clue as to the film’s true, rather superficial nature, is there in the bland rock stings, even before we get the Proclaimers’ irritatingly jaunty “I’m Gonna Be” on the soundtrack.
All of which is fine and perfectly entertaining. One of the group is a speccy dimwit who provides constant amusement; another is a cheerfully ginger Chris Martin lookalike; and pikey ratboy Brannigan has a nicely self-assured presence and a hint of Monty Clift around his vivid blue eyes. For all the bad language (there’s a lot of cunts in Glasgow) this is meant to be easy, escapist fare, and it comes as a bit of a surprise to see Ken Loach treat the socio-political realities that are so much his stock in trade so blithely. The threat of violence loses its urgency even before we’re off to the Highlands, and Robbie’s struggles with his own volatile tendencies are given minimal attention. He’s prompted to shape up by the birth of a son (via his long-suffering girlfriend) but one wonders how such an inveterate fuck-up, as reported, from a long line of losers, can suddenly pull of such an audacious and successful scam with such authority.
The complete lack of security at the distillery is one reason. The point is that it’s a sort of fairytale, right up to the happy ending, which has Robbie and family riding off into the sunset. The “angels’ share”, we learn, is the 2% of the whisky that evaporates during its time in the cask; by siphoning off a few bottles, it seems, these hard-luck youths are simply getting something they deserve, perhaps, a compensation for the crappiness of their lives. Except there’s a huge amount of money involved – an unassuming chap forks over a million-plus quid for the cask, none the wiser that it’s been depleted. This will just about pass, in the tradition of lovable British criminals getting away with it – the little man has his secret triumph over the wealthy – but it’s just not possible to forgive the criminal who dilutes the world’s rarest malt with scotch from another bottle.
Film’s Festival Page: The Angel’s Share
World Cinema Section
Country: UK | France | Belgium | Italy
Director: Ken Loach
Screenwriter: Paul Laverty
Producer: Rebecca O’Brien
Executive Producers: Pascal Caucheteux, Vincent Maraval
Cinematographer: Robbie Ryan
Editor: Jonathan Morris
Production Designer: Fergus Clegg
Music: George Fenton
Cast: Paul Brannigan, John Henshaw, Gary Maitland, Jasmin Riggins, William Ruane, Roger Allam, Siobhan Reilly
Running Time (minutes): 101