Directed by Ken Loach
Written by Paul Laverty
United Kingdom, France, Belgium, and Italy, 2012
Every so often, you can almost physically feel the shift a film makes as it attempts to lift the rug from under your feet. Most times, though not all, such shifts being so cognitively visible are a burden, and that’s the case with The Angels’ Share, Ken Loach’s most recent film, the Jury Prize winner at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. Loach and writer Paul Laverty, in the first hour, weave a pleasant, homespun tale of a young Glaswegian man trying to do right after years of being ensconced in bad behavior. And then, randomly, it takes a turn that only modestly pays off.
At its best, The Angels’ Share is nearly absent of ambitions, simply presenting a group of ne’er-do-wells in Glasgow struggling against their inherent nature to be scoundrels, troublemakers, so they can be good enough to complete their court-mandated community service. The main quartet sometimes veer into the familiar: there’s Albert, the bald, daft drunk; Mo, the introverted thief; Rhino, brash and big; and the leader, Robbie, a squirrelly sort who’s desperately trying to reform by being a good father to his newborn son. Unfortunately for him, his girlfriend’s family has it out for him, and he’s finding it difficult to fight back or abandon his paternal responsibilities. As the community-service group grows more close-knit, they’re introduced by their chaperone to the world of whiskey tasting, a skill Robbie finds he has in spades. He wisely channels that skill into a risky way to solve his problems, to say the absolute least.
In fact, to say more spoils that strange shift roughly an hour into this 100-minute comedy. Laverty’s script avoids a number of stereotypes and clichés, admittedly; for example, Robbie never gives any physical comeuppance to the thugs surrounding his good-hearted girlfriend. In one sequence, where they come to give him a beating at a local pool hall, he’s prepared to fight them off but is taken away by his girlfriend’s father, running away instead of getting smashed in like a martyr. We want Robbie to give these goons what for, but Loach and Laverty back away from the familiar climax here. And being fair, within the first 25 minutes or so, it’s not immediately clear that Robbie will get a knack for tasting and identifying whiskey types. That shift is natural enough, and well played by the cast, so it’s believable to see a group of well-meaning hoodlums get a taste for the finer things. Perhaps it’s that we spend so little time in the world created by that third-act turn, making it feel more unbelievable in a film that, up to that point, isn’t rife with implausibilities. Seeing a real-world story get turned ever so slightly on its ear is, here, quite distracting, even with a solid cast.
And The Angels’ Share does have a sturdy ensemble, with the raffish Paul Brannigan as Robbie leading the charge. Brannigan’s performance is stellar in that it never feels like he’s acting. Frankly, because so few of the actors in this movie have been in bigger-budget affairs—playing a whiskey collector, Roger Allam, from Game of Thrones and Speed Racer, is the sole exception—the early sections have a nice, lived-in, cinema verite feel to them. That quality, honestly, is what’s missing from the final 30 minutes, as the feeling that we’re not watching characters, but real people, quickly evaporates once Robbie reveals a master plan to help himself out with his new friends at his side. The humor is still present, but everything feels slightly forced in the third act.
Still, The Angels’ Share was made and performed with enough care and skill that the third-act twist is only slightly bothersome. Ken Loach’s ability to craft slice-of-life stories is unabated, and there’s a twisted musical turn to the dialogue, so thickly accented that subtitles are required, being delivered by all these ruffians. And there is charm to the performances, especially Brannigan’s lead, a young man who’s angry enough that he wants to lash out at those who wish to keep him down, but smart enough to know he can’t give the villains in his life the satisfaction of being thrown in jail for a righteous deed that’s also a crime. If only The Angels’ Share hadn’t dipped its toes in the waters of the familiar and mainstream in its last act, a crutch that hampers the film from being truly special.
— Josh Spiegel