Director:- Ken Loach
Starring:- Paul Brannigan, John Henshaw, Jasmin Riggins, Gary Maitland, William Ruane
Runtime:- 101 mins
After tours of duty in England, Ireland and Iraq, Ken Loach returns to Scotland for the first time in eight years, with The Angel’s Share. On previous visits to the country Loach, along with screenwriter Paul Laverty offered slices of social realism with My Name is Joe (1998) and Sweet Sixteen (2002). During their self-imposed exile the duo have produced more life-affirming efforts with the comedy Looking for Eric (2005). In The Angel’s Share they attempt to marry the bitter and sweet of their previous collaboration, combining harsh social commentary with a light-hearted heist romp involving syphoned whisky. The result is an intriguing blend of grim drama mixed with Ocean’s Eleven in kilts.
Certainly The Angels’ Share is at its most effective when following Robbie’s struggles, a troubled new father who has just narrowly avoided prison for aggravated assault. Loach’s gift for accurately portraying the plight of the lower classes is on full display as our protagonist is continually dragged back to the life he wishes to leave behind. First time actor Paul Brannigan seems to revel in the role as the unstable hero. Brought up by drug-addict parents and having spent time in juvenile detention before being discovered by Laverty, he draws on his own life experiences to deliver the guarded vulnerability required to make him a sympathetic leading character. This fragility is most evident in a scene in which Robbie meets with the family of one of his assault victims. A flashback showing the assault reveals the rage that Robbie carries like so many young men who feel hopeless and trapped by their background. In less skilled hands this scene would turn him from hero to villain, but Loach has faith in his leading man to elicit sympathy from the audience through the silent shame he portrays in the scene. Brannigan doesn’t just know the role, he has lived it.
Loach’s leading man is not the only first-time actor on the screen. Making her big screen debut, Jasmin Riggins also gives a strong showing as Robbie’s kleptomaniac accomplice Mo. There are also roles for Gary Maitland and William Ruane, as Rhino and Albert. The two actors who were given their big break in Sweet Sixteen and provide some much needed comic relief in the earlier sequences. With Maitland now a regular in Loach’s films the director has returned to unearth more acting gems hidden in the rough of urban Scotland.
For the first 45 minutes Loach coasts along in familiar territory, creating a hyper real landscape rife with social commentary, before delving into pure escapism for both audience and characters in the film’s latter stages. The plight of a struggling young father is replaced by an elaborate heist plan involving a crew of oddball heroes and the theft of an extremely rare malt. As the plot drifts from realist drama into the realms of fantasy, so too do the locations. East Glasgow, with its tenement flats and graveyards are quickly replaced by the rolling hills and glimmering lochs of the Scottish highlands. The transformation into knock-about farce is complete with the inclusion of The Proclaimer’s I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) as the gang make their way to the distillery to carry out their plan.
It is a dramatic tonal shift and one that damages the good work achieved in the first half of the film. While the story is first and foremost about Robbie and his attempts to break away from a poisonous lifestyle there are plenty of other important issues raised that are conveniently forgotten about to make way for the comedic crime caper that dominates the final act. While the conclusion provides a feel good moment as Robbie starts his new life with Leone and Luke by his side, there is the suggestion, albeit made comically, that his associates will not be so lucky in their attempts to start a new life. Loach has not betrayed his roots, the story may end well for some, but there is still work to be done at a community level before everyone can have their happy ending. As the hero rides off into the sunset in his new camper-van, those who remain behind serve as a reminder that there are no easy solutions to large social problems.