Well, that’s my original opening paragraph out of the window. Last Sunday, The Angels’ Share, the latest offering from social realist stalwart Ken Loach, was presented with the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, guaranteeing it much more attention than it would otherwise have garnered. This is especially so, considering that this is a particularly unassuming trifle from the filmmaker who first trod the Croisette promoting Kes over 40 years ago.
It doesn’t start so tweely, though, as The Angels’ Share opens with a bunch of Glasgow ragamuffins, sentenced to community service after an assortment of misconduct, from shoplifting to assault, from drunken-and-disorderly behaviour to dicking about on a train station platform. While we are at first introduced to this bunch as an ensemble, Loach soon homes in on young Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a lad with a temper who is given one last chance to get his life back on track.
For the first act or so, The Angels’ Share is a typically British social drama, exhibiting all of the genre’s flaws and strengths. Loach shoots Robbie’s predicament with an immediate intimacy, which makes moments of reflection more poignant, and sudden, violent outbursts all the more disturbing. Glasgow is seen through an oppressive, grey murk – a grimness which leaches through into the characters’ lives. But Paul Laverty’s script, while shot through with an undercutting, sometimes deliciously sharp wit, is lumbered with whistle-clean themes and morality-tale simplicity, its melodramatic, transparent dialogue full of grand proclamations about responsibility and the seeming impossibility of escaping one’s past. Robbie simply wishes to get on with his life, and care for his girlfriend and newborn son, but his father-in-law, a gang of local goons, and society itself seem to be conspiring against him.
That is, until Harry (John Henshaw) comes into his life. No doubt the repeat recipient of the Scottish Social Worker of the Year Award, Harry wastes no time before taking Robbie under his wing, bussing him about when he should be painting the interiors of public buildings, and taking him and the group out on trips on his days off. One such display of warmth is to pass on his passion for whisky to Robbie, who, it turns out, is quite the natural. Before long, he’s developing his palette and pursuing this new-found hobby with life-changing enthusiasm.
And, then, the film changes, too. It’s an immediate, sudden shift, where what came before is mostly jettisoned in favour of an entirely different tone, style and moral landscape. Robbie is still bothered by the same responsibilities, but after hearing about the recent discovery of a barrel of near-mythical, super-rare, Holy-Grail-of-Scotch whisky, he and a couple of his community service chums decide to take a trip up to the Highlands to, well, pilfer it and sell it to the highest bidder.
So, crank up The Proclaimers and get the costume department to fit out our cast in kilts, as they’re planning an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist – only their target isn’t a Vegas casino, it’s a whisky distillery. In a very odd move, Loach and Laverty dive into much more whimsical waters here, literally leaving behind the community service narrative in favour of Highland hijinks, almost in tacit agreement that the cinema world doesn’t need yet another gritty social drama about gritty Glasgow. In its place is an uneven, somewhat unfocused caper, where far too much time is given over to long, informative sequences about the whisky industry, and far too little is made of some rather clever satire of the duality at the heart of Scottish culture – the tension between tartan-clad tourist-bait and grim reality
That is not to say that the film isn’t funny, or that the cast isn’t superb. It is both, especially where lovable-dunce Albert (Gary Maitland) is concerned. However, quirky whimsy doesn’t suit Loach well, and such an approach starts to grate before the film skips toward its sickly-sentimental climax. True, it is admirable to see the director rip up his own rulebook so late in his career, but to do so mid-film is perhaps not the best way to do it. It comes off a little too much like havering.