A barrel of whisky would usually spell doom for the working-class blokes who always find their way into Ken Loach films. But it is redemption the director and his longtime creative collaborator, writer Paul Laverty, have in mind in the unexpectedly warm, hopeful and humorous brew of “The Angels’ Share.”
Comedy has been increasingly leavening the darkness in the filmmaker’s more recent work. Mind you, Loach never completely walks away from gritty themes. But the edgy humor comes in offering slight detours from the more serious social and human difficulties that remain.
Still, it is a mess of a life the filmmakers have given Robbie (excellent newcomer Paul Brannigan). He’s a Glasgow, Scotland, lad well on his way to repeating the sins of his father. Choice and fate have Robbie embroiled in a long-running family feud – its genesis long forgotten, its rage spilling over into ongoing street fights.
That’s not, however, what has put Robbie in the courtroom in the film’s opening moments. To the caustic judge – standing in for society, and not a very polite one – Robbie is nothing more than another local thug hauled in for a bad night, specifically one he spent coked up and angry, beating a stranger senseless. With Robbie’s pregnant girlfriend looking on, the judge decides to give him a second chance: 300 hours of community service rather than jail.
This is a movie steeped in second chances. Robbie’s girlfriend, Leonie (Siobhan Reilly), is one who sees the possibilities in him. But the real game changer comes from the two new men in his life: the “wee man” Leonie soon gives birth to, and the much more formidable one in Harry (John Henshaw), who runs the community service crew Robbie’s assigned to.
Harry’s not as hard as he seems, and in Henshaw’s hands, he’s downright lovable. Harry’s fond of old malt whisky, and equally fond of the young thugs in his charge, so he can’t help but mix the two. Soon he’s decided to expose them to a little culture in the form of a whisky tasting.
As they set out for the Edinburgh tasting, the emotional journey gets underway as well. Loach and Laverty use it to get at the current unemployment crisis for the United Kingdom’s youth, which has reached an all-time high. Even the title reflects the kind of poetic subtext that characterizes Laverty’s scripts – distillers dub the percentage of each barrel lost to the ether as “the angel’s share.” And there are angels in disguise looking out for Robbie everywhere.
He and his mates are unlikely whisky aficionados to say the least – a shoplifting specialist in Mo (Jasmin Riggins), a bruiser named Rhino (William Ruane) and Albert (Gary Maitland), so culturally challenged he’s never heard of the “Mona Lisa.” It becomes a running joke.
The twist is the way in which the world of whisky begins to alter their prospects.
Robbie turns out to have a real nose for it, able to unpack the scents that flavor various blends of Scotch. He catches the eye of Thaddeus ( Roger Allam), a high-end broker and slick operator, and earns the appreciation of whisky expert Rory McAllister (deliciously played by a real expert in Charlie Maclean).
But redemption is a long and winding road, and in the movie that road circles around a recently discovered barrel of what may be the finest whisky in existence. An auction of the rare mash is rapidly approaching, a million-dollar payout is possible, and there are schemes and scams brewing in every quarter.
At times the film is as rough around the edges as its central characters, without the refinement of Loach’s best – the prison-hardened “Sweet Sixteen” or the war-torn “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.” But shots of the stunning Scottish Highlands, glimpses inside some of the region’s finest distilleries, a hilarious riff on the realities of kilts and Brannigan’s rawly moving turn as Robbie, like a wee dram of the good stuff, “The Angels’ Share” leaves a warm glow.