Filmmaker Ken Loach is not someone from whom a comedy is expected. Known for his uncompromising stories of social injustice told with trademark searing intensity, humor would seem to be a format with which he is, if not unfamiliar, at least uncomfortable. This is what makes THE ANGELS’ SHARE all the more remarkable. The usual Loachian elements are all in place, but there is a gentle spirit at work here as well, and not just the alcoholic spirits around which the plot revolves.
This is a film about chance: chances taken, chances given, and the chance meetings that can profoundly change a life. The life in question is that of Robbie Emerson (Paul Brannigan), the product of Glasgow’s permanent underclass, who has until now spent his time brawling, drinking, drugging, and otherwise carrying on the brutal traditions of his peers without considering the possibility of another way of conducting his life. A near miss at another term in jail, and the imminence of fatherhood courtesy of committed girlfriend Leonie (Siobhan Reilly) causes him to sit up, take notice, and, against all odds, decide against bequeathing to his son the brutal life his father and grandfather have bequeathed to him. Keeping out of scrapes with the law proves problematical. There is his the ongoing blood feud with another family to contend with, and Leonie’s male relatives wanting to see him, if not dead, at least gone from Glasgow. What saves him is the community service to which he is sentenced after his last scrape, which brings him to the attention of Harry (John Henshaw), a hulking bear of a man whose appearance belies a tender heart and a genuine, even sophisticated, appreciation for Scotch whiskey. These two chance developments allow Robbie to discover, among other things, that he has an extraordinary nose when it comes to judging whiskey, a drink he’d never sampled before, or thought of sampling for that matter. More chance encounters ensue, including one with a posh whiskey collector (Roger Allam) who sees the value of Robbie‘s specific talent, and an oddball set of new friends also doing community service with Harry. People who are petty criminals, but given the chance, there’s that word again, find they have an enormous capacity for camaraderie.
Without the heavy-handedness from which some of his films suffer, Loach uses a character study to explore a world where crimes and misdemeanors have little to do with the legal definitions of same. The subculture to which Robbie belongs exists independently of outside forces, leaving its denizens to kill or be killed, literally or figuratively. Loach and frequent collaborator, Paul Laverty don’t stint on the violence or the sense of tedious hopelessness that leads to it, and results from it. When Leonie’s uncles keep Robbie from seeing his newborn son, they don’t just rough him up to make their point, they beat him bloody. The language itself reflects the reality, with expletives flying fast and furious as part of the lingua franca of the streets, but with no more impact on the hardened ears of the listeners than a random pronoun or appositive on a tea party at the Ritz. So when Robbie trembles when picking up his son for the first time, or stoically listens with tears streaming down his face as one of his past victims recall the beating that sent him to the hospital, the struggle to overcome conditioning and the acquired instincts that have kept him alive is viscerally wrenching. It also makes perfect sense of the wild caper Robbie plans to change his life forever, involving his new friends, kilts, and a cask of rare whiskey.
Even here, Loach and Laverty are anything but frivolous, making one salient point after another, but with an unusually deft touch. Robbie and his pals set their sights on appropriating for profit, i.e. steal, a rare malt mill whiskey, of which only one cask remains. Destined for a collector rich enough to afford it, a connoisseur or not, and by its nature available only once, this marvel of the distilling art is become a commodity, valued more for bragging rights than its exquisite nature, and certainly beyond the reach of the craftsman who made it, or people like Robbie or Harry who could appreciate for itself, not for its price. If laws are broken in the course of the story, there is also a sense that justice is served. Loach and Laverty are smart enough, though, to leave those issues to the subtext, leaving the supertext to consider the peculiar quirks of human nature as these underdogs notice that the world may not be as dire as they‘ve been led to believe, and allowing the rich humor that arise from that to shine with an unsentimental warmth that is endearing.
THE ANGELS’ SHARE, the title refers to the 2 percent of whiskey that disappears from the casks as it ages, is filmed with Loach’s masterful style. Hand-held cameras give immediacy and edginess where necessary. Fixed cameras allow for the action to unfold on its own terms, with Loach’s infallible instinct for when to linger, and when to cut, and which images to pair for that cut. Silence, chaos, or the good-natured jibes directed at a slow-witted man who has run afoul of what a kilt can do to his privates coexist seamlessly. If there is a flaw, it is an arbitrary plot point that is forced, but that almost redeems itself later with a payoff that is as perfect as they come. As is the performance by first-time actor Brannigan as Robbie. A slight man with protruding ears, knobby chin, and piercing blue eyes, his spindly physique has a vulnerability countered by Brannigan’s quietly fierce determination. He never misses a beat in a demanding role that mixes savagery with introspection.
For a film with unbearably lifelike bloodletting, THE ANGELS’ SHARE has a sweetness to it as well, the sweetness, perhaps of a mellow whiskey, the which is celebrated for its mysterious alchemy as well as its symbolic nature. Pronounced notes of salt and leather and peat temper the sweetness, but don’t overpower it. They only make it all the more precious.