Directed by: Ken Loach.
Written by: Paul Laverty.
Starring: Paul Brannigan (Robbie), John Henshaw (Harry), Gary Maitland (Albert), Jasmine Riggins (Mo), William Ruane (Rhino), Roger Allam (Thaddeus), Siobhan Reilly (Leonie).
Through more than 40 years, and nearly as many films, Ken Loach as been the U.K. preeminent Leftist filmmaker – making films about social justice and the underclass whether they were fashionable at the time or not – and he has gone through long stretches of his career when both of these things were true. You have to admire that Loach has stuck by his beliefs throughout his entire career. He hasn’t always made good films – some are far too preachy, some like his last film Route Irish were muddled and confused. But he has stuck by his core beliefs. You have to give him that.
His latest film, The Angels’ Share, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year, is similar to many of his other films. Once again, Loach is looking at the underclass – this time at Robbie (newcomer Paul Brannigan), a young man with seemingly no family, who likes to get drunk and get into fights. But now he wants to turn over a new leaf. His girlfriend Leonie (Siobhan Reilly) is pregnant, and he wants to be more of a father to his son than his father was to him. But he is stuck in a cycle of violence that he may not be able to break free from. His girlfriend’s father hates him – beats him up, and tells him to stay away from his daughter and grandson. He even attempts to buy Robbie off – and most astonishingly, seems to have renamed Robbie’s newborn son. Robbie also has a long running feud with another local drunk – stretching back to his father’s days, and while Robbie wants to bury the hatchet, this other guy doesn’t. The smartest thing Robbie can do is get out of Glasgow. But how? And what will he do when he does? Besides, he’s 300 hours of community service to go through.
It’s at Community Service where he finally discovers his purpose. He meets Harry (John Henshaw), responsible for overseeing the assorted people working. He treats them kindly and with respect – assuming the best about them. And he is proven right. It seems that none of the people at community service are really that bad – they’ve just made mistakes. Harry’s greatest love is Scotch – not to get drunk, but to simply savor the flavor. It’s this love that sets up the film’s second half – that you could describe as a comic caper, when Robbie and his pals decide to steal a few bottles of the most expensive, rarest Scotch on earth.
The Angels’ Share – which refers to the 2% of Scotch that disappears a year while it is being aged – is a strange movie. On one hand, it wants to be a hard hitting movie about Robbie, who is basically a good guy, who wants to set his life straight, and how because he is poor, and has no way out, he is trapped. On the other hand, it’s a comic caper – almost wish fulfillment – about Robbie and his pals conspiring to get out of their dire circumstances by stealing whiskey. These two sides fight with each other – often scene to scene – and so the movie never really settles into a groove. It’s hard, if not impossible, to get on the film’s wavelength, because it switches every few minutes. It’s hard to think of a more schizophrenic film in recent memory.
It should be said though that in Brannigan, Ken Loach has discovered a major talent. This was his first film role, and although the movie makes him change rapidly and constantly, he mainly succeeds in grounding the movie. The scene where he has to go meet the young man he beat up – and his family – is heartbreaking, precisely because Brannigan seems so natural and ashamed, although he doesn’t say anything. He also has charm and comic timing, which the movie requires in its last half. He is a star, if he’s given the right role.
Perhaps Loach and his constant writer Paul Laverty – who have worked together on every film Loach has made since 1996 (that’s 12 films if you’re counting), should start working with others more often. Since Loach’s triumph – The Wind That Shakes the Barley in 2006 (for which he won the Palme D’Or, although I suspect that the honor was almost more of a lifetime achievement award than for the film itself), their collaborations seem stuck in some sort of rut. With The Angels’ Share, they are obviously trying to change – make a comic caper, with a mix of the social realism they are known for – but it quite simply doesn’t work.