If you know nothing else about 76-year-old British director Ken Loach know this: He is an unreconstructed lefty. And he makes movies in service of his political ideas. He’s the sort to raise his head above the parapet on the occasion of Margaret Thatcher’s death to proclaim her “the most divisive and destructive prime minister of modern times.”
That said, Loach has made some powerful and entertaining films over the years - from the 1967 feature debut Poor Cow (footage of which was incorporated into Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey), to the classic Kes (1969), to the heartbreaking The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006). If you love the hyper-realistic work of a director like Mike Leigh, who should know Loach is at least his most obvious antecedent, a director who scrupulously adheres to an unwritten code of natural realism. Depending on your politics, you might want to start out with a film like 2009’s Looking for Eric, a relatively warm comic rumination on the idea of friendship and the demystification of celebrity (though Loach would tell you the movie is all about “solidarity”).
Or maybe this one, a low key and rather marvelous, sweet-natured heist movie - winner of a jury prize at Cannes - that, were it not for the thick accents (helpfully subtitled), could pass for a well-made American indie feature, right down to the on-the-nose soundtrack. (The Proclaimers’ “500 Miles” again? Really?) Which is perhaps a way of saying that while The Angels’ Share is not the best Loach, it is probably the director’s most accessible work to date.
It concerns itself with a group of hard case Glaswegians who have been sentenced to community service for minor offenses. Among these is Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a 20-yearold whose public defender insists means to go straight. Robbie’s pregnant girlfriend (Siobhan Reilly) is a civilizing influence. Harry (John Henshaw), the counselor who oversees the community service work, takes a shine to Robbie and invites him to his modest home, where he introduces the younger man to his hobby of tasting fine whiskies. It turns out Robbie has quite the nose for high end Scotch.
As part of his sentence, Robbie is required to meet one of the victims of his thuggery, a young man Robbie had beaten so badly he’d lost the sight in one eye. It’s a harrowing and disturbing scene, but one that reveals Robbie’s basic humanity. He is impulsive because his environment doesn’t allow time for reflection - to hesitate is to risk becoming a victim yourself.
And it’s ironic that Robbie’s way out of his criminal nightmare involves one last job. He devises a somewhat wacky plan to liberate some of the liquor from a recently discovered cask of Malt Mill from a legendary, long-closed distillery. The cask is scheduled to be auctioned, and collectors estimate it will fetch more than a million pounds. But even without a certificate of provenance, Robbie expects his siphoned-off soda pop bottles of the Scotch to command good prices, because real connoisseurs don’t need documentation to tell them their Scotch is good.
And the idiots who’ll spend all that money for the cask, well, they probably won’t notice if its diluted with more ordinary stuff. They’re not buying whisky, they’re indulging in a self-regarding display of economic power. Robbie isn’t really stealing anything from them, they can’t appreciate the good stuff anyway.
Some of the tonal shifts in The Angels’ Share are jarringly abrupt; the light comedy breezes over a bitter and dangerous wasteland, a kind of Ashcan School Glasgow. There is always a threat present, breathing down the necks of the poor, jobless people of this post-Maggie, hyper capitalistic age.
The Angels’ Share 87 Cast: Paul Brannigan, Siobhan Reilly, John Henshaw, William Ruane, Gary Maitland, Jasmin Riggins Director: Ken Loach Rating: Not rated Running time: 106 minutes