' Cinema Romantico: The Angels' Share

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Angels' Share

The title of “The Angel’s Share”, as explained in a lovely monologue, is culled from the portion of the whisky distillation process that evaporates – which is to say, it is the small share given over to the angels. Well, that’s a poetical thought, and one that speaks to the ultimate intent of the film. Its director, Ken Loach, is known for a naturalistic style, locations that feel lived-in, casts stocked with as many non-professionals as professionals, and he often uses this authenticity in service of varying social political points. But, the political is far from all Loach has on his mind, as “The Angel’s Share”, like so much of his work, evinces. It’s a film that blends naturalism with fantasy, if not always successfully at least always winningly. He wants to show it like it is, but he also wants to dream about how it might be.

Robbie (Paul Brannigan) is a young hothead in Glasgow who, as the film opens, avoids a jail sentence for a senseless beating of a stranger specifically on account of his status as a father-to-be. Perhaps, with child in tow, he can reform, and so the judge sentences him to community payback. Though he seems willing to make good, his past continually rears its head. Leonie (Siobhan Reilly), the woman carrying his child, might have faith in him, but her family does not, and when Robbie tries to visit the hospital after his baby girl’s birth, Leonie’s Uncles threaten him and chase him off. How can one change if not afforded the chance to do so?


In Robbie’s case, change will arrive, mystically, in libation form when his community payback supervisor Harry (John Henshaw), protective of his young charge but also willing to give him the necessary kick in the arse, introduces him to whisky. Well, Robbie has never tasted whisky in his life, but a few sips and he proves himself an unexpected bon vivant, an improbable track-suited whisky connoisseur. And so it is an aromatically wondrous distilled spirit that forges a new path for our wayfaring youth. This is the gray area where Loach so often excels, an ability to ground his plot in the everyday but offer a heightened plot point as the ultimate thrust of the story. Perhaps this is off topic, but it’s a style I desperately wish an American filmmaker would attempt to emulate, to willingly roll around in our red, white and blue gutter while still holding holy our highest hopes.

And so while Robbie’s livelihood is threatened and while he is held accountable by having to confront the man he nearly killed for no reason, “The Angels’ Share” still provides a magical elixir in the form of an invaluable bottle of Malt Mill Whisky that has just been discovered. Having learned the distillery process and forming a ragtag Whisky Tasting Club with a few of his community payback cohorts, the quartet, sporting festive kilts to ward off suspicion, journeys north to where the Malt Mill will be sold at auction. Posing as a group of overeager, undertasted whisky enthusiasts, they manage to secure an invite to the auction, merely means to the end of siphoning a bit of the cherished liquid to sell and kickstart their lives.

That’s Loach as a wire-walker, transforming “The Angels’ Share” into a modest and uniquely un-urgent heist film and asking for us to maintain empathy with a band of thieves. Of course, we must remember this is an English film, and the auction victor is distinctly American, a Connecticut WASP in a Red Sox cap. This, I imagine, will provide snickers all over the Isles, sticking it to the Yanks, and that’s understandable. But simultaneously, it works as a commentary about the social misfits and outcasts of Scotland taking a bit of the national pride back for themselves.

Like so many films made in and around Edinburgh and Glasgow, the accents are thick and difficult to decipher, not only at first but the whole way through. In spite of this, it never feels standoffish, and instead comes across quite universal. Your Malt Mill Whisky could be anything.

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