The Angels’ Share (cert. 15) is a comedy about the theft of Scotch whisky but owes as much to Trainspotting as to Whisky Galore. Ken Loach’s Glasgow-set film starts with a series of court cases with defendants getting community payback sentences, one of them being Robbie (Paul Brannigan).
Impending fatherhood is one reason why he’s not sent to jail, and it’s an incentive to amend his life. Girlfriend Leonie (Siobhan Reilly) is plain about this being his last chance to make good, but her gangster father wants Robbie away from her, either by threatening or bribing him.
The community team reports to supervisor Harry (John Henshaw), a Mancunian in Glasgow, with a vague backstory, who goes beyond the call of duty in trying to engage his charges in changing their lives. One of Harry’s interests is whisky (perhaps that’s why he emigrated to Scotland) and a visit to a distillery finds Robbie discovering his “nose”, leading to an invitation to join Harry at a tasting in Edinburgh.
Fellow offenders Rhino (William Ruane), Albert (Gary Maitland) and Mo (Jasmine Riggins) blag their way onto the trip. It’s Albert’s first time in Edinburgh, and he asks what that building is up there. “That’s Edinburgh Castle”.
“Why did they put it up there?”
Real life whisky expert Charlie Maclean was enlisted as technical adviser, and ended up playing himself as “Rory McAllister”, waxing lyrical at the tasting about a recently-found cask of rare whisky from a long-closed distillery, a cask likely to fetch a million pounds at auction. Not just the four Glaswegians’ ears prick up – dealer Thaddeus (Roger Allam) is also wondering how to get some for one of his rich clients.
Screenwriter Paul Laverty has worked with Loach for 16 years on a dozen films, set in places from Nicaragua (Carla’s Song) to LA (Bread and Roses) but mostly dealing with the working class British. Though played for a lot of laughs, this story depends on how hard it is for people to escape a cycle of deprivation and crime.
“We wanted to tell a story about this generation of young people, a lot of whom face an empty future,” says Loach. Paul Brannigan himself is an ex-offender, and his story has parallels with his character’s chance of breaking away from that pattern of behaviour.
He was introduced to Laverty by a police officer working with Glasgow’s Violence Reduction Unit. Paul had a job there but lost it, and almost lost the chance to land the part of Robbie.
Paul and most of the cast are untrained, and had to work with improvising on Laverty’s bones of a script. There are few concessions to English ears – some have wished the English subtitles used when it was shown at the Cannes Festival had been kept for general release.
Glengoyne, Deanston and the remote Balblair distillery north of Inverness feature, and there’s more than a touch of whisky tourism, even product placement, about it. This hardly detracts from the message of the film, which is to introduce an element of hope into the latest lost generation of young people looking at a life without work.
The depressing note is that we know Robbie (and Paul playing him) will be exceptional, and even Loach seems to lack solutions – there’s no real railing against the system in this. Maybe he feels he hardly needs to go on about the failure of capitalism now that it’s obvious.
The angels’ share is of course the small percentage of distilled spirit that evaporates into thin air. Apart from the obvious parallel with the victimless crime that Robbie plans, it’s symbolic too of the few who get away from, well, a life of crime.
Harry himself is an angel. He gets his reward in this life, a very nice bottle of “the water of life”.