There might be a pretty good film lurking in this latest dramedy from the veteran Scottish directing-writing team of Ken Loach and Paul Laverty.
I use the conditional because at least half the dialogue is delivered in a Glaswegian Scots so thick, it might as well have been Urdu. Laudable goals, naturalism and authenticity, but not at the expense of basic comprehension. Subtitles, anyone? It would not have been the first English-language film to need or offer a deciphering code.
The impenetrable script aside, The Angels’ Share is a peculiar cinematic brew that combines Loach’s long-standing commitment to the British underclass with a frothy, more conventional caper scenario. Gradually, the dark, peppery bite of the former is eclipsed by the creamy taste of the latter. It’s as though Loach set out to make pure, whimsical comedy, but couldn’t fully renounce his roots in left-leaning political activism. The result is a sometimes gritty, occasionally charming Highland hybrid, but the final balance feels slightly off-kilter.
The focus of the social-conscience element is Robbie (Paul Brannigan, making his film debut), a yob seemingly trapped in a cycle of youthful violence. His girlfriend’s family despises him, and he’s the target of a menacing gang of street thugs.
Fortuitously spared a jail sentence for his latest brawl (because he is about to become a first-time father), he joins a cadre of other misfits in menial public service – cleaning graveyards and painting run-down community centres.
As part of his penance, he agrees to meet with a young man (and his family) whom he brutally beat in a drunken, unprovoked rage, leaving the victim blind in one eye. Robbie absorbs their justified vitriol with silent tears. It’s the film’s most memorable and affecting scene.
One day, Harry (John Henshaw), the cadre’s sympathetic overseer, escorts the group on a tour of an area distillery. There, Robbie suddenly demonstrates a discriminating palate for Scotch, and a nose with an uncanny penchant for more than mayhem.
That previously unknown native talent lays the groundwork for the ensuing caper: Robbie and the reforming gang’s improbable plan to siphon four bottles’ worth of an extremely rare single malt that another Scottish distillery is putting up for auction. This, ostensibly, is to be their angel’s share (hence the film’s title), the equivalent of the 2 per cent of Scotch whisky said to evaporate from every cask.
You know Loach has begun tripping into fantasy land when the million-pound-plus cask of vintage hootch is left virtually unsecured overnight, essentially asking to be stolen.
What does succeed is the cast, particularly Henshaw as the avuncular supervisor and Brannigan, a novice actor whose own youth is said to have mirrored that of Robbie’s. He’s entirely credible in the part, his softer side always at the mercy of his well-honed, ruffian, survival reflexes.
But the film’s moral calculus is perplexing. We clearly want to applaud Robbie’s attempt to escape the rough hand that life has dealt him. But we are asked to do so by sanctioning what is, after all, theft, and evidence that Robbie’s solemn pledge to reform is essentially hollow. So what is Loach’s point – that crime is permissible if victimless? Or (nudge, nudge) tolerable in this case because only the rich auction winner and the corporate distillery owners will suffer?
That, perhaps, is the core problem: What’s a heist film without a heist? So Robbie has to orchestrate the adventure, automatically forfeiting any claim to genuine rehabilitation. A cleverer third act would have found a way for him to use his nose to win another way.