Ken Loach finds light at the end of the barrel in an often hilarious and surprisingly warm take on the heist genre.
Veteran filmmaker Ken Loach isn’t known for his lighthearted films. His characteristically slate grey realism has explored class and other social issues over his forty something years in the business. This is not to say that his films have been without levity, but the shifts in tone tend to be of the comic-tragic type. Which is why The Angels’ Share, arriving on the back of a Prix du Jury win at Cannes this year, begins appropriately enough with a beleaguered life on its last chance. His path to a new hope comes from a completely unexpected place, and as such, the comedy can be found within genuine situations and characters.
Once again reuniting with Scottish lawyer turned screenwriter Paul Laverty, the latest of about a dozen collaborations between the dream team, Loach and Laverty’s almost-lost cause is Robbie, played by newcomer Paul Brannigan. After narrowly avoiding a prison sentence, despite a history of violent crimes, expectant father Robbie is sent to community service. His girlfriend Leonie (Siobhan Reilly) goes into labour, but he finds it difficult to escape the cycle of violence. Kindly community service manager Harry (John Henshaw) takes a shine to Robbie, sharing with him his passion for whisky. Harry takes Robbie and his co-workers – Mo (Jasmin Riggins), Rhino (William Ruane) and Albert (Gary Maitland) – on a field-trip to the distillery, where Robbie is revealed to have a nose for the product. So begins a grand plan to change their fates.
The so-called “Angels’ share” refers to the unexplained alcohol that disappears during the distillation process. After meeting collector Thaddeus (Roger Allam), Robbie’s fascination leads him to wanting his own share of the profits. Thus what begins as a bleak forecast set against the downtrodden social strata in Scotland, rapidly shifts to a heist film, one where the stakes are the very futures of these men and women. The transition in direction is like a ray of white hope that shoots through the centre of the picture, setting itself apart from the slick distant cousins of the Oceans Eleven films. As the group sets off on their journey, The Proclaimers “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” serves as an unofficial anthem. It might be goofy and obvious, but Loach and Laverty are making no secret here of the positive vibes they are striving for.
The cast of largely non-professional actors are endearing, not immediately, but it is striking how quickly they work their way into our comfort zones. Many of the troubles of the first half of the film are almost conveniently forgotten once the caper takes flight, but this too is indicative of the upbeat central message. Sitting somewhere between Ealing Studios comedies and The Full Monty, the politics might be light, but they are no less clear: sometimes all people need is a second chance, and something to strive for. That alone is like a shot in the arm, or better yet, a shot of whisky.
The Angels’ Share played at the Sydney Film Festival in June 2012.