Ken Loach, the 76-year old, British filmmaker best known for his bleak political dramas such as “The Wind that Shakes the Barley,” “Bread and Roses” and “Ladybird Ladybird,” has with “The Angels' Share” made a wee, entertaining comedy about the theft of high-priced scotch in Scotland.
Like most Loach films, it starts out focused on those barely clinging to the bottom rung of the social ladder, this time in Glasgow. Robbie (newcomer Paul Brannigan), a skinny runt of a young man, is up before a judge who’ll decide whether he goes to jail on an assault charge or can do community service instead.
The judge is feeling lenient and Robbie gets community service, a good thing since his girlfriend is about to have their first child. Harry (John Henshaw), the kindly fellow who runs the community service program, takes Robbie under his wing, counseling him against violence, encouraging him to be a father to his new baby son, and introducing him to the pleasures of a decent malt whisky sipped in moderation.
It takes a while, but it eventually becomes clear that “Angel’s Share” is actually a heist film. Make that a heist film with social content.
Robbie spearheads a complicated operation in which, if successful, he and several of his fellow community service mates, all equally urban and ne’er-do-well, will steal a few precious bottles of an unspeakably expensive, 100-plus year old scotch from a barrel in a storage cellar in rural Scotland. Step One of the plan: don kilts.
As he does in many of his films, Loach uses a combination of professional actors and regular folk whose own lives partially parallel those of the characters they’re playing. Brannigan fits into the latter category but shows an impressive intensity and slyness that makes him compelling to watch.
Without resorting to using a didactic sledgehammer, Loach makes his points here about the heavy toll of grinding poverty, omnipresent violence and absent parents. But he also makes it clear that, sometimes, all it takes to put a life back on track is one person being willing to help.
Shot on location in Glasgow and the Scottish countryside, the film gives a vivid sense of both. It also provides subtitles for most of the dialogue, a necessity for Americans with ears unused to the indecipherable, heavy Scottish brogues employed by most of the movie’s underclass characters.