From the old reliable master Ken Loach, arrives the quaint little gem The Angels’ Share, a nearly seamless blend between drole humour, sometimes violent, edgy drama, the heist film and finally, the pastime of whisky tasting. More than any other facet, the latter adds a dynamic which is (fundamentally at least) completely at odds with most other themes explored in the film. Yet somehow it all works immensely well, adding a somewhat elitist, pompous kick to the adventure that I just loved.
It doesn’t hurt at all that I adore that particular spirit and hearing discussions about the subtleties and unique flavours of the drink made my tongue thirsty for a sip. In many ways those sequences do for whisky what Sideways did for wine admirers. The Angels’ Share, if you were wondering, is a colloquialism referring to the small percentage of whisky which evaporates during the casking process – gone for good to the heavens above. It’s the hearing of that expression which sets in motion a tale of redemption for a new father trapped in the shadow of his past mistakes. There may even be some fun to be had along the way.
In this particular lark, Loach vividly reminds us of his proficiency across genres and of course of his overall strength as a technical filmmaker. To view a comedy like The Angels’ Share with the prior knowledge that the same man had directed the entrancingly bleak The Wind That Shakes the Barely truly speaks to the man’s talent.
But in the same instance, this film does go in mature, austere directions and ultimately it’s the successful bridging of genres that makes it a minor triumph. In so many instances of efforts which seek to entangle different domains of film the leaps are jarring and ultimately undermine each other. Here it is done confidently and with ample charm, even when some of the plot threads are left somewhat pendulous.
Our central character of Robbie (Paul Brannigan) seeks to prove he can be a father to his son and in the process to those around him that the two vicious assaults to his name are in the past. His last clash with the law has left him with 300 hours of community service but it’s the relationship that develops with his supervisor (and his love of whisky) and three of his other delinquents that set him on a path to salvation, even if that particular journey is of the unscrupulous variety. There is little need to go into more detail about the greater plot but a $1 million barrel of liquid gold is critical.
All of the principal actors (mostly assembled from unknowns) do fine work, particularly Brannigan who is required to strike the correct balance between a screw-up, a man fearful of his past life, one with anger simmering beneath the surface and finally an individual we must believe to be smart enough to orchestrate a nuanced crime. The Angels’ Share’s script and Brannigan pull it off. It’s through this character that most of The Angels’ Share’s darker elements are explored such as an extended recalling from the man he beat years earlier and the clashes he experiences with his past acquaintances.
His other three conspirators Albert (Gary Maitland), Mo (Jasmine Riggins) and Rhino (William Ruane) are also a lot of fun, with Rhino in particular providing much of the film’s comic relief with his oafish ignorance and bumbling nature. At times his character is constructed too cartoonishly but the humour is (mostly) subversive and developed enough to work. That is to say instances of vomit drinking and chafing scrotums don’t work quite as favourably. There is also strong supporting work from John Henshaw as the aforementioned whisky-loving supervisor of the gang and Roger Allam as a collector who most North American audiences will recognize as Lewis Prothero from V for Vendetta.
The largest issue I had personally (and I do mean legitimate issue) is that there where extended instances where I was fully unable to make out what certain characters were saying through their thick Scottish accents. With entire scenes sometimes rendered incomprehensible, it left more than a little gap in the smoothness of the storytelling. In one instance it took for me getting to the actual arrival of the scene to finally figure out what had been discussed earlier. Now of course being a film set in Scotland it’s reasonable to expect such dialect but it was up to Loach to reign in his actors and make them execute their dialogue more crisply.
That unfortunate barrier aside, The Angels’ Share has a lot to offer both when it comes to executing a fairly unique collection of ideas, themes and genres and the fact it does so in a very appealing and gratifying way offers even further enrichment. It all more than deserves to have a glass raised in its honor.
With The Angels’ Share, Ken Loach expertly combines a handful of genres which congeal into an often funny, always charming affair that serves as a salute to whisky to boot.