Ken Loach has had a long, distinguished career as a filmmaker, one that will hopefully continue for many years to come. His work has been rightly celebrated for decades, partly due to his passion for telling interesting, politically-relevant stories and partly due to his committed interest in social realism; with a government in place in the UK that currently seems concerned only with ensuring that the rich get richer and those in the so-called margins of society continue to suffer, we need him more than we ever have done. Loach’s work is as vital today as it was when he first began directing films in the 1960s.
The Angels’ Share is Loach’s most recent film. Decidedly similar in its kitchen-sink-comic tone to his excellent 2009 movie Looking For Eric, it won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Indeed Loach has become something of a Cannes favourite in recent years: Looking For Eric was also up for the Palme D’Or, and his magnificent 2006 film The Wind That Shakes The Barley actually won the award.
Loach’s films have tended to fall into two categories. On the one hand there are the grander-scale epics, detailing national political struggles (for example The Wind That Shakes The Barley or Land And Freedom). On the other hand there are the more local dramas that examine certain socio-political issues but with an inherent focus on smaller communities (for example Riff Raff and Kes). Either way, the director is famed for his close examination of relationships between individuals within the framework of his stories.
The Angels’ Share falls into the latter category. It is largely set in Glasgow, and tells the tale of four petty criminals who are sentenced at the start of the film to undertake community service as punishment for their crimes. They are Mo (Jasmine Riggins), Rhino (William Ruane), Albert (Gary Maitland) and Robbie (Paul Brannigan). The first three have committed minor offences, whereas Robbie is in court charged with GBH. He escapes prison after facing a lenient judge who takes into account the fact that his girlfriend Leonie (Siobhan Reilly) is due to give birth shortly after the court date.
Robbie has had a history of violent behaviour and there’s an implication that he comes from a troubled home, but his avoidance of jail and the birth of his son give him a renewed focus; his intention is to go straight, to be a good father and to leave his previous ways behind. Unfortunately, he finds it impossible to convince others that he is capable of turning his life around. Leonie’s uncles savagely beat him at the maternity ward when he arrives for his son’s birth, and her father tries to bribe him to cut ties with Glasgow and move to London. A local gang are also after retribution for a previous attack; the threat of violence constantly follows him around Glasgow’s estates.
The foursome partake in community service under the supervision of kindly Mancunian and whisky connoisseur Harry (John Henshaw). Harry treats Robbie to a glass of vintage Scotch whisky in order to toast the birth of Robbie’s son and takes the group to a distillery to reward their good behaviour (and here they find out what ‘the angels’ share’ means; it is the 2% of whisky that evaporates inside the cask each year). All four develop an interest in the subject, with Robbie in particular displaying excellent ability as a taster. To encourage them, Harry drives the foursome to a professional tasting session in Edinburgh, where Robbie impresses during a blind tasting and attracts the attention of whisky collector Thaddeus (The Thick Of It’s Roger Allam). While there, Mo steals information about the location of a forthcoming auction where a supposedly-priceless whisky, the Malt Mill, will go on sale. Robbie and co trek into the Scottish highlands, intending to steal a few bottles of the whisky and make a small fortune, and from thereon-in the film becomes a kind of lo-fi comic heist caper that nods to the classic Scottish film Whisky Galore!. The second half of the film is undoubtedly lighter than the first, as a result of the heist plot. Loach takes the action out of the tenements, courtrooms, snooker halls and cafes of Glasgow and transplants it to the beautiful highlands, altering the tone of the film almost instantly. It’s a nice move, and it works well; people’s moods do tend to shift when they get a break from an urban environment by visiting the great outdoors – why shouldn’t a film be lifted in the same way?
The main message here is that good things can happen when people are given a second chance. The character of Harry is portrayed as Robbie’s guardian angel; he is the only person other than Leonie that sees Robbie’s potential and encourages his development as a father and as a connoisseur of whisky.
As well as Robbie’s individual relationships, Loach’s film also explores the justice system in Scotland. Screenwriter Paul Laverty, who has collaborated with Loach on several films since the mid-1990s, is also a prominent left-wing lawyer who was born in Calcutta to an Irish mother and Scottish father. The story is therefore one that he is well-qualified to write, if qualification is a necessary concern. Scotland is also the perfect choice because of the country’s progressive attitude to and adoption of restorative justice, whereby victims and other citizens are heavily involved in the aftermath of a crime, directly addressing its effects on individuals and society. And in that sense it’s a film Loach is well-qualified to direct, too.
Glasgow actually trialled a scheme as early as 2003 in which victims faced the criminals that affected them directly across a table, and applied it to the city’s juvenile offenders. In real life it has, apparently, been successful as a deterrent for repeat offending. The most striking scene in the film covers this aspect of the justice system; Robbie and Leonie sit opposite the victim of Robbie’s GBH offence, as well as the victim’s family, and must hear at first hand about the effects the attack has had on all of their lives, ensuring the offender realises that the physical harm caused is not the full story. It is an incredibly powerful piece of cinema, superbly acted by Brannigan and Roderick Cowie (the victim), and totally believable.
Brannigan is actually a reformed criminal who spent much of his youth involved in gang violence and petty crime in Glasgow. He is excellent as Robbie, the film’s central character, and considering The Angels’ Share was his first acting appearance that is all the more impressive. It is a very astute casting move by Kathleen Crawford and the fact that the film’s central idea about the benefits of giving someone a second chance has thus been mirrored in real life ensures there is credence to Loach’s work and the film’s message. A real life whisky expert, Charles MacLean, was also cast in the film, ensuring the whisky tastings and auction are equally believable.
This is not, though, a simple and heartwarming tale of redemption, though it is warm at times. Robbie is not presented as an essentially good guy who has made bad choices in life; his character is more complex, reserved and there are various shades of grey at play. We are not forced to like him, and the film asks us equally to refrain from judging him (the fact that the film begins with a court judgment is telling). Loach gets this exactly right: some viewers may well be horrified by the description of Robbie’s past, but the film is ultimately addressing the dangers of making a decision that will remain set in stone about someone’s character.
The Angels’ Share thankfully doesn’t try to offer any easy answers to society’s ills, but it does explore ideas that are possibly helping a recognised problem. Laverty has a flair for dialogue and his working class characters are not one-dimensional or stereotypical – they feel true to life (although some serious character development other than Robbie would have been nice). Additionally, Loach neither glamourizes Glasgow nor condemns it, and refrains from turning the second half into one long advert for Visit Scotland, the national tourism board. Ultimately a celebration of generosity, it is yet another fascinating work from the ongoing and successful Loach/Laverty collaboration, and often a pretty funny one to boot.
Directed by: Ken Loach
Written by: Paul Laverty
Starring: Paul Brannigan, John Henshaw, William Ruane, Gary Maitland, Jasmine Riggins
Running Time: 101 Minutes