The Angels’ Share – Film Review

Ken Loach’ film The Angels’ Share (2012)

On limited release in the USA (finally!)

The comedy/drama The Angels’ Share tells a story of self-determination and redemption in the face of nearly impossible odds. It won the Jury Prize at Cannes, and to no small degree it is a commentary on aimless lives that are blind to possible avenues of advance and enlightenment, in pointless conflict with those most like themselves, and oblivious to any shared values or heritage of national spirit. In this case, the spirit is represented literally in Scotch malt whisky.

The story begins in the bleak inner-city of Glasgow, Scotland where lives Robbie, the former juvenile delinquent who is spared a return to prison for disfiguring three rival thugs, because his girlfriend Leonie (the dewy eyed Siobhan Reilly) is days away from having their first child. Even with her compelling and youthful wisdom to inspire his efforts, he finds turning over a new leaf harder than expected. It is only when an unlooked for mentor introduces him to single malt scotch that Robbie’s luck begins to change.

The dark humor is present from the moment the film starts, as nefarious youths stand in court while charges are being read before the sentencing magistrate, and it grows broader as the film progresses. It is set against the stark, brutish world of Glasgow’s lowest classes, which remains realistic and the action there never crosses into melodrama.

Taught and Edgy

The taught script is by Paul Laverty (Sweet Sixteen, Even the Rain.) While the dialog is natural and at times seems improvised, the European pacing of the first half may be a bit slow for Americans with action film sensibilities. The initial plot is a bit generic, and could have been easily transferred to Spike Lee’s Bedford-Stuyvesant. Only when we and Robbie’s mates are exposed to some of Scotland outside their daily drudgery do things begin to develop some specific identity, much like Robbie himself.

Robbie is played by Paul Brannigan, who at 25 began his acting career with this film, which earned him a BAFTA Scotland award – the British equivalent of an Oscar. The son of heroin addicts, Brannigan’s upbringing in Glasgow’s turbulent East Side was very near to that of the character he was cast to portray. At 16 he was sent to prison for taking part in a gunfight to avenge the stabbing of his aunt. And like Robbie he had his own child but few prospects, before landing a role in the film that gave him hope unlooked for and the key to a new life.

No Robbie Burns, the young man in the film bears the scars of the brutal life spent at the corner of Ignorance and Poverty, peopled with the permanently unemployed who manage to collect enough public assistance to congregate at snooker halls and drunken dance parties.

But he has sworn to forsake his old ways and prove to his true love and himself that he can become a good partner and parent. Like Shakespeare’s tragic teen, this modern day Romeo is striving to evolve beyond the senseless, violent feuding he inherited from his father. But the gang of his Tybalt-like nemesis, played with suitable menace by Scott Kyle, is determined to force him into renewed inter-clan combat.

Ensemble Distillation

On the first day of his Community Payback sentence, Robbie is befriended by Harry, the softhearted supervisor of the work crew, a role filled to the brim by John Henshaw. When the call comes that Leonie is in labor, Harry rushes the lad to the hospital, where her father and uncles waylay him and leave him in a bloody mess as a warning to stay away from her and the baby.

Harry prevents Robbie from seeking revenge. Instead he takes him home and celebrates the birth of his new son by introducing the young father to his first dram of malt whisky, and refuses to let him put some Coke in it. No ordinary scotch, it is 32 year old Springbank and a gift from a former member of his work crew. Apparently, Harry has a history of going above and beyond the call of duty. Thus begins Robbie’s education into the arcane world of single malt scotch.

On his day off, Harry takes the work crew out of the city for a visit to “scared ground” and a tour of the Deanston distillery. Here the audience learns that the film’s title refers to the fact that 2% of the contents of a whisky barrel evaporate through the porous oak each year it ages, which was once a phenomenon blamed on thirsty angles. And here we begin to see various members of the crew emerge as Robbie’s mates, including the lanky slacker Rhino, (William Ruane) along with Mo, (Jasmine Riggins) a wee kleptomaniac with a cute face and a foul mouth.

And like rough-edged youth in real life, once you get to know them, they turn out to be funny, interesting, caring people with more worthwhile opinions than they are usually given credit for. That even includes Albert (Gary Maitland) the kluzty doofus who provides most of the lowbrow comedy in the film.

Robbie begins reading about whisky and developing the art of nosing, which he tries to share with his friends to mixed results. When Harry takes them to an exclusive whisky tasting event, Robbie’s sensory acumen draws the attention of serious malt men.

Without Harry’s knowledge, Mo steals some papers identifying the Highlands location of a recently discovered cask of scotch from a long-extinct distillery, expected to bring a million pounds at auction. From there the film changes tone, as Robbie and his quartet of misfits leave Glasgow to embark on a quest to find and possibly steal what is described as the Holy Grail.

It is when hooligan Robbie discovers the national spirit of Scotland that he begins to use his mind, rather than his fists, to find the way up and out of the violent, dead-end existence of his forebears. The trek into the Highlands for a little bit of non-violent felony leads to his permanent exodus from the ghetto of Glasgow’s perpetually unemployed and on to a “real job,” which we are told is “not far from Sterling,” the legendary seat of Scottish independence.

Deep and Complex

The deeper veins in The Angels’ Share lay with how young urban Scots are so out of touch with their own culture and national identity that they assume they need to wear kilts to blend in among the Highlanders, and it takes an Asian-American tourist to inform one of them that he is wearing his backwards.

It is a clever device, and telling, that the filmmaker always has outsiders know and appreciate more about being Scottish than the natives. The altruistic Harry with his passion for Scotch whisky is an Englishman, as is the mysterious stranger so impressed with the Robbie’s olfactory gifts, played with relaxed gravitas by veteran stage actor Roger Allam.

The professional whisky authority, dressed for the tourists in the uniform of a clan chieftain, speaks with an Oxbridge accent (portrayed by Charles MacLean, one the giants among real-life whisky experts.) He may be a Scot, but two-thirds of his identified audience comes from outside of Scotland.

Even the one song in the film, the Proclaimers’ I’m Gonna Be, (“And I can walk 500 miles…”) is the first Scottish tune known around the world this side of Year of the Cat. And at the climactic moment, it is men from Moscow and Connecticut who are willing to spend whatever it takes to own the rare whisky barrel.

The Angel’s Share is far darker and smarter than the wacky comedy caper about pinching some whisky suggested by the publicity. The struggles of this inner-city thug on the road to respectability is grounded in a gritty reality. Yet it is not without a good deal of humor, both subtle and broad, with lots of British irony.

Satisfying Finish

I confess I went because of the film’s connection to malt whisky, and I thought the first half took its time to unfold, at the expense of the second half. Robbie’s development as a prodigy literally happens in a matter of a few minutes. I would have welcomed more illustrations of his enthusiasm, and greater detail about his education, as well as why Scotch whisky is so revered around the globe.

Who knows? The film might have done for single malt scotch what the comedy Sideways did for California wine. At least it played a part by showing how getting wasted on decent booze is quite a bit different than appreciating the traditional spirit of Scotland.

But then, The Angels’ Share is not really about whisky at all. It is about a primitive man-at-arms whose sense of dignity was once wrapped up in avenging the slightest offense and not backing down from a fight, but who repents of the false-honor of vendetta, and how he finds redemption on the non-violent path that ultimately illuminates his way to a better life.

It offers a lesson that should be learned wherever young men cling to the barbaric delusion that manhood or honor can ever be achieved or validated through violent means.

And that is one man’s word on…

The Angels’ Share, a film by Ken Loach

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