Ken Loach’s “The Angel’s Share” is a hearty comedy film served with several whiskey shots of harsh reality. While it ultimately comes to us as a funny and hopeful tale about finding a chance for better life, the movie seldom forgets the grim environment which has influenced its flawed but likable characters. It is humorous as a comedy, but its humor comes with bruises and bleeding nose.
We meet its troublemaker hero through the opening scene where he and others are brought to the court for their respective misdemeanors. Robbie(Paul Brannigan) looks like a harmless man child, but this young hooligan living in Glasgow was arrested for a severe physical assault on one of the local hooligans he has clashed with for years. Because he already has the record of several violent incidents due to his hair-trigger temper, he can be jailed in this time, but, after his lawyer argues that Robbie tries to be a changed man after his girlfriend’s pregnancy, the judge sentences him to 300 hours of community service instead.
When they get out of the court, his girlfriend Leonie(Siobhan Reilly), a young but sensible woman, makes him promise that he will be a good father to their baby and will never get himself into trouble again. Robbie does want to keep the promise, but he finds himself still in conflict with the local hoods. Leonie’s father, who shows no love to him, wants him to go away from his daughter, and so do her thuggish uncles, who beat him to a pulp when he visits the hospital to see Leonie and the baby.
He sees no prospect in his future for he is virtually unemployable due to his criminal record and little education, and the same thing can be said about the friends he meets through his community service work. Unless something changes their lives, they will be stuck in their dismal world for the rest of their lives while their criminal records will probably become longer than before.
And then a small but considerable change comes to Robbie and his friends. Their community service supervisor Harry(John Henshaw) takes them to a whiskey distillery as the reward for their good behavior, and Robbie becomes very interested in whiskey production. As a tour guide shows them around the distillery, we get some interesting information about the fermentation and distillation process, and we also learn about ‘the angel’s share’, which means a small portion of whiskey evaporating during its long storage period in oak casket.
It turns out that Robbie has a sharp sense which may make him a good connoisseur of whiskey someday. Understanding Robbie’s increasing interest, Harry takes him and others to a whiskey tasting session held by an expert connoisseur in Edinburgh, and they happen to hear from him about a recently discovered casket containing the priceless whiskey from a famous distillery which is no longer in business. It will soon be on the auction, and it is expected to be sold at least at 1 million pound.
When it becomes clear to Robbie that he cannot find any hope for him and his family in his town, he decides to steal that invaluable whiskey for getting a chance for new life, and that is where the movie moves to a more cheerful mode. It does not look like an easy job at first, but Robbie gets a nice idea for the plan, so we get an amusing sight of him and others wearing kilts as a part of the ludicrous but plausible disguise during their long journey to the auction place. As the cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s camera captures well the beautiful landscape of the Highlands, the Proclaimers’ song “500 Miles” is played on the soundtrack, and you cannot help but feel cheery about their adventure although what they are going to do is basically a criminal activity which will surely put them in prison if they are caught.
The director Ken Loach, who has constantly made excellent social drama films for more than 40 years, keeps his touches intact in this film which feels more lightweight than his notable works including “Kes”(1969) and “Bread and Roses”(2000). He looks at his characters more warmly than before, and he even does not hesitate to use dirty humor for comic effect during one moment which made my eyeballs rolling, but he does not overlook their gritty reality and their hardships. The story itself may be unrealistic, but it grows out of the realistic background and solid characterization, and we come to like and identify with Robbie and his friends.
As usual, Loach hired a group of unknown actors, and he deftly drew the natural performances from his actors. Paul Brannigan, a young Scottish actor who started his career with this film, gives a likable performance as a problematic lad who knows his problems well but still cannot control himself well. As shown in one striking flashback, Robbie is capable of brutal violence, but he knows he did a wrong thing at that time, and there is an emotionally intense moment when he agonizingly faces its consequence during the private meeting with his victim and the victim’s family. John Henshaw is also excellent as a kind middle-aged man who slowly becomes a mentor figure to Robbie, and Gary Maitland, Jasmin Riggins, and William Ruane give colorful supporting performances as Robbie’s friends/accomplices. Maitland is particularly funny as a dim guy who has somehow managed to live despite his sheer stupidity(or genius, perhaps), and he has several hilarious scenes including the one where he drunkenly staggers around a train station while never being conscious of a possible danger approaching to him.
With the screenplay by his usual collaborator Paul Laverty, Loach successfully made a genuine feel-good movie which is actually not that far from his other more realistic works, and he won the Jury Prize for this film at the Cannes Film Festival in last year. It is a less serious work considering his respectable filmography, but Loach shows that he can have a little fun in his territory without compromise, and the result is a charming comedy on the whole.