Film Review: The Angels' Share

Ken Loach comedy about young Glaswegian reprobates fighting for a second chance has charm aplenty, but suffers from occasional portions of cheese and a hard-to-swallow premise (whisky-tasting as gateway to a better life).

Ken Loach’s newest starts as a bruising comedy of life on the verge, then veers sharply into spiky Scottish urban realism before turning into something of a caper, complete with peppy soundtrack and applause-ready moments. To say that The Angels’ Share is a schizoid piece of work doesn’t quite do it justice. But while the film seems to want to have it all, and frequently has trouble deciding what tone it’s aiming for, there’s a clear moral purpose here and purity of character that’s undeniable.

In the opening scene, Albert (Gary Maitland), a bespectacled and just slightly moronic nutter who is later gang-pressed into service as comic relief, provides us our moral. Swaying drunkenly on the edge of a train platform, Albert’s bellowed at over a loudspeaker by a security guard watching him on CCTV miles away. It’s a funny scene, Albert getting more confused and in danger the more he’s shouted at, but also instructive: Like all the other young people in the film, he’s adrift, clueless, seemingly capable only of digging himself deeper into trouble and at the mercy of unseen forces.

Paul Laverty’s screenplay ambles around after this with a gaggle of Glasgow youths who, like Albert, have been sentenced to community service for petty crimes. We zoom in eventually on Robbie (Paul Brannigan, a great find), a scrawny bundle of nitro who’s trying to put a life together with his pregnant girlfriend but can’t escape his legacy of drugs and fighting. One nerve-scraping scene shows Robbie being made to confront the traumatized victim of one of his coke-fueled rages; it’s an ugly moment and a tough move for Loach, as though daring the audience to still find compassion for the kid who would do such things. Meanwhile, old nemeses of Robbie continue to circle with promises of retribution, while the job prospects for a scar-faced young felon are bleaker than for even the average modern Scottish youth.

The Angels’ Share shifts into lighter territory with the introduction of Harry (TV stalwart John Henshaw), the kids’ gruff but caring minder. He introduces them to the joys of whisky-tasting on a weekend jaunt to a distillery (the title comes from an old term for the two percent of whisky which dissipates while it’s in a cask). There, Robbie discovers that he has something of a “nose” for the subject. After that, the film’s marriage of tough kitchen-sink drama and frothier redemptive comedy becomes a tricky balancing act. Henshaw and Brannigan ably carry much of the weight here, but the nonprofessionals portraying the rest of Robbie’s criminal friends are given little chance to develop well-rounded characters. The thinness of the story becomes more apparent when Loach sends them all off on a wildly improbable money-making mission into the Scottish hinterlands, complete with synthetically upbeat soundtrack (including the umpteenth use of The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be”) and some not-quite-fresh gags involving kilts and a van full of nuns.

What carries The Angels’ Share through its rougher patches is not the raggedy patchwork plot, whose climactic caper feels more appropriate for a 1980s band-of-misfits comedy. Even amidst the Glaswegian housing-estate gloom (complete with savage urban combat straight from rawer films from Ratcatcher to last year’s Neds), Loach and his energetic cast maintain a steely, bright tone and fighting determination to underscore the importance of second chances. It’s their sheer social earnestness that keeps the sweetheart of an ending from feeling nearly as manipulative as it actually is.