By Raj Ranade
10:05 AM EDT, May 1, 2013
The Angel's Share
Directed by Ken Loach
It wouldn't exactly be right to say that old age has softened director Ken Loach. When Margaret Thatcher died a few weeks ago, the famously leftist British filmmaker ended a tirade about her by suggesting that her funeral be privatized and sold to the lowest bidder — "It's what she would have wanted," he said. But Loach's recent films have started to make room for things his earlier work, brutally realistic dramas of working-class life, usually didn't allow. The Angels' Share, Loach's latest film, is still a politically-charged film focused on poor protagonists caught in harsh realities, but it's also a comedy with a crowd-friendly high-concept hook (ex-convicts turned whiskey-aficionados try to lift themselves out of poverty through the heist of a rare Scotch).
But unlike many feel-good stories of that ilk, this film is grounded in lived-in specificity, at least for the first hour anyway. The film opens with a montage of petty crime sentences from a Glasgow courtroom — in a dry deadpan, the prosecutor reads to defendants charges relating to public drunkenness, smashing up a vending machine, and draping a Scottish flag on a statue of Queen Victoria. One of the more serious offenses is the assault charge faced by Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a young man who gets off with community service like the other offenders because he's about to become a father. But things still look bleak for Robbie: he can't find work because of his criminal record, he's entangled in a messy blood feud started by his own father, and he's been offered cash by his girlfriend's father to abandon a family that might be better off without him.
Robbie's salvation, strangely enough, is found at the bottom of a bottle, when his community service supervisor Harry (John Henshaw) introduces him to the art of savoring fine Scotch and takes him to tasting sessions run by Charlie MacLean (a real-life whiskey connoisseur playing himself). There's a bit of the humor you might expect from the uncultured Robbie hobnobbing with the spirit-sniffing elite. But generally, the movie's attitude towards whiskey appreciation is far removed from something like Alexander Payne's Sideways, where the joke is on wine snobs who grow apoplectic at the mere mention of merlot. Loach films scenes of distillery tours and tasting sessions with enough respectful detail that the film functions as a condensed Scotch-appreciation primer on its own, and the practitioners of this art are kind people with humility. (MacLean himself at one point admits to the difficulty of successfully identifying whiskeys in a blind taste test.) And for Robbie, who turns out to have a particularly talented palate, mere exposure to this high-culture pursuit is a life-changing influence.
It's here where the film shifts gears, as Robbie and some of his newly discerning community-service drinkers get the idea to steal some particularly expensive whiskey and sell it to a collector (Roger Allam) — the film's title refers to the percentage of whiskey in storage that inevitably evaporates over the years, the basis for Robbie's undetectable heist idea. Loach for his part is pretty sympathetic to his characters' transition from aimless, random criminality to targeted theft. In a society that treats the urban poor like a rounding error, he suggests that it's only fair for the poor to propagate the same level of respect upwards. (It's clear here that even the people at the top of the whiskey empire, like Allam's collector scheming for an under-the-table steal of his own, have rigged the game in certain ways.)
At this point, the film basically becomes a crowd-pleasing fantasy, which has inspired grumbles from those who balk at the sudden shift away from realism. And it's probably true that there are a few too-cheesy gags involving kilts and that multiple appearances of the Proclaimers' "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" (during montage scenes, no less) are fairly cringe-inducing.
But I'd say Loach has at least done plenty to earn his flights of fancy. There's his uncompromising adherence to realistic dialogue and scene-setting. (Even in the lighter segments, the film's texture is one of peeling wallpaper in apartments, bureaucratic sterility in government offices, and Scottish brogues so thick that this English-language film will play in theaters with subtitles.) There's his commitment to highlighting the kind of social programs that Lady Thatcher advocated slashing. (A scene where social workers bring together Robbie and a past assault victim as part of a "Talk After Severe Crime" initiative is both harrowing and powerfully redemptive.) And there's his skill with non-professional actors. (Playing Robbie, Brannigan is so charismatic and effective at selling even solemn drama that it's a surprise to learn the actor was plucked off the street from circumstances not entirely dissimilar to Robbie's own.)
The director sometimes referred to as a miserablist has mellowed some, and that's OK. Loach may not have navigated the transition as smoothly as his compatriot/former miserablist Mike Leigh, who has now made two brilliant films (Another Year and Happy-Go-Lucky) that are essentially about what it means to be truly happy. But this director known for a straight-no-chaser approach to working-class struggles has served up a sort of highball instead — the flavors are diluted and less complex maybe, but it's hard to deny that it goes down smoother.
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