“This is God calling, get off the fucking tracks!”
I normally judge the quality of a comedy by how many times I have to pause the film in order to catch my breath from laughing. So it says a great deal about Ken Loach’s whisky-heist comedy that I didn’t get more than 90 seconds in before I had to hit pause.
The films basic premise is simple: four young-offenders from Glasgow, while undertaking a Community Service Order, conceive a plan to rob a distillery of four bottles of priceless whisky and sell it on to a collector for a huge profit. The 40 year old whisky is from a distillery that no longer exists and the four bottles represents the thieves variation on the idea of “the angels’ share” – that small percentage of whisky that naturally evaporates during the distilling process. The gang, led by Robbie (Paul Brannigan), all have their own reasons for planning the theft. Some want the money, some crave the excitement, while Robbie simply wants to provide for his young family.
It all sounds pretty straight forward and predictable but as this is a film by Ken Loach (Kes, Riff-Raff, Raining Stones) it’s the human drama that takes centre stage. Robbie is a young offender who has narrowly avoided a lengthy prison term for violent assault (due mainly to the appeals for leniency caused by his girlfriend being pregnant) and his decision to turn away from violence and create a better life for his family is one of the central motifs of the film. Brought up in a community where violence is a way of life Robbie astutely realises that the only way he can spare his son a similar fate is to break the pattern of violence and make a fresh start. The money from the theft will go a long way to achieving that goal so he risks his freedom for a chance to change his, and his young family’s, future.
Although at it’s heart the film is a comedy that’s not to say there aren’t some examples of Ken Loach’s signature social realism: the scene where Robbie, obeying the conditions of his Community Service, faces his victim is very powerful and provides further insight into his character’s desire for change. Instead of falling on old habits and angrily deflecting blame away from himself Robbie is genuinely ashamed of his actions and the confrontation further strengthens his resolve to change his violent ways.
On the whole the film works remarkably well. Not only is it very funny it’s also at times unashamedly sentimental: the scene towards the end where Robbie repays his friend Harry’s kindness is surprisingly sweet. In fact the film is positively life-affirming: one of the central themes – that one of the greatest impediments to someone changing is themselves – is very well played out. However, as good as the film is there are a few minor problems. The threat posed by the street gang who constantly harass Robbie seems to disappear around the 1-hour mark making the film’s ending a little too neat and tidy. You could also be forgiven for assuming that everyone who lives in Glasgow is a drunken psychopath. These are small quibbles though, especially since I don’t come from Glasgow! If you watch the film with a view to it being a modern day fairy-tale created in the mold of the Ealing Comedy’s of the 1950’s then you’ll probably enjoy it as much as I did.
In the run up to the films release in June 2012 a great deal of press attention centred on newcomer Paul Brannigan’s performance, and rightly so. Brannigan’s own life mirrors that of Robbie’s and his performance, imbued with both honesty and verisimilitude, is wonderfully assured. Special mention should also go to Gary Maitland and his character of Albert. The film may well belong to Brannigan but Maitland steals almost every scene he’s in – his bafflement at the existence of Edinburgh Castle is worth the price of admission alone. The rest of the cast are equally strong and in the best tradition of the heist movie you want the petty criminals to succeed simply because they are so likeable. Great stuff.
The Angels’ Share at IMDB
The Angels’ Share at AMAZON