Just when the festival’s perpetual rain threatened to soak right through the collected critics’ spirit, redemption came from the most unlikely of places, the grey, wind-swept streets and hills of recession hit Scotland. The Angels’ Share sees festival veteran Ken Loach return to the Croisette with a gentle, but politically loaded comedy, steeped in Gaelic identity but carrying a wider message that feels appropriate well beyond the geographical borders of the film.
The film follows Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a young Glaswegian with a violent past on community service and intent on changing the direction of his life for the benefit of his girlfriend Leonie (Siobhan Reilly) and newborn baby son Luke. Inspired by community service supervisor Harry (the always excellent John Henshaw), Robbie discovers a flair and passion for whiskey appreciation, and is invited into the alien world of whiskey collection thanks to his skills. With the considerable ominous shadow of his past hanging over his head, and worries that he is not good enough for his girlfriend (not aided by the violent reinforcement of her father, Psycho-Balls), Robbie hatches a plan to steal three bottles from a very rare cask of Malt Mill whiskey from a Highlands auction.
With his ragtag group of fellow community servicers in tow – Rhino (William Ruane), Mo (Jasmin Riggins), and Albert (Gary Maitland) – Robbie sets about his plan to siphon off the ultra-valuable booze and sell it to whisky dealer Thaddeus (Roger Allam), demanding that Thaddeus sorts him out a proper job in a distillery as part of the deal.
Throughout the film, Loach is keen to explore the contradictions that Robbie faces in trying to escape his past, and the ominous threat of relapsing into that kind of situation again. Just as he believes a corner has been turned, they pull him back in – not only in terms of self-destructive behavior, but also of how social preconceptions write characters like Robbie off as lost causes – a virulent symptom of the social identities that Robbie represents – and one that underpins the simple but enduring message that Loach intends in The Angels’ Share. Everyone deserves a chance, and like the whiskey which plays such an important part in the narrative, if you are willing to give someone the right kind of opportunity to show deeper layers, the rewards are infinitely greater.
Though the film feels extremely appropriate in terms of the global recession it will be released into, it is actually an anthem for a lost generation who have been around a lot longer than the current dip in the world’s markets – as the production notes state, some young people in parts of Scotland (and similar areas) are now third generation unemployed, and raising awareness of that situation, as well as ensuring that they, like Robbie, are still viewed as worthwhile people is a big part of the social commentary of the film.
Despite the fact that The Angels’ Share is so invested with a motivated message, its greatest success is in the understated way it sets about elucidating that message, focusing on authentic character development, and traditional simple filmic elements like strong story-telling and a high entertainment factor to push the point. There is no overt politicism anywhere; Loach’s traditional dedication to presenting as much truth as possible trumping any temptation for sentimentality or blatant protest, and captured in both the simple cinematography, and the way the director collected his cast.
Among the professionals like the brilliantly funny John Henshaw and Roger Allam, Loach has used non-professionals with experience of the communities the film focuses on, in the case of former community worker Paul Brannigan, or actors who haven’t starred in a great deal of things who know his methods, and what to expect on set – like Gary Maitland – to the advantage of the film. That brings an added level of authenticity to key roles, like Robbie, as the actors behind the characters are closer to the same experiences and don’t have to rely on artifice to convince.
Though some of Loach’s more famous films are serious socialist commentaries, his method of forging on-set dynamics between characters through unscripted interplay and improvisation means his comedies tend to be even better than the realist dramas. The Angels’ Share continues that trend, with some genuinely hilarious moments, mostly revolving around idiot savant-like Albert, whose inappropriate comments are only matched for impact by his disarming genius at other times.
The performance of Gary Maitland (who plays Albert) is just one fine performance in a strong cast, which can also count Paul Brannigan’s Robbie as a highlight, as well as John Henshaw’s Harry, the heart and soul of Loach’s message of possible redemption. Considering the specific requirements of Loach’s approach to film-making, that he can get so many good performances out of his cast, including the non-professionals says a lot about the director’s resounding quality.
And even when it seems that Loach has softened a little, offering a happy ending for Robbie, all is not quite as it seems. His redemption isn’t quite all-encompassing: Ken Loach is a socialist and a realist, but he is not a fantasist, and the ultimate tragic irony of The Angels’ Share is that the only opportunity available to Robbie to achieving his goal of a better life involves criminal activity, and just as the credits are about to roll, it becomes obvious that while he has found a way out, even the closest characters to him might well have difficulty changing the trajectory of their own lives.
The Upside: The Angels’ Share is often hilarious, always hugely charming, and carries a wholly appropriate message.
The Downside: As a character, Mo is pretty much nondescript.
On The Side: Gary Maitland, who plays Albert, is not a professional actor, and rather magically spends his days working as a street cleaner.