'The Angels' Share': Scots-and-scotch comedy is watered-down, but still bracing
By James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Starting with his 1967 feature debut, "Poor Cow," and continuing to his very busy career now, England's Ken Loach has kept a very singular faith, portraying life among the hopeful dreamers at the other end of the social spectrum from the bright and fortunate 1 percent. And Loach, for his part, is still making them like he used to. He uses no scripts, just outlines. He hires professional actors where he thinks they'll fit and non-actors where he thinks they'll function. His small crew captures small moments in intimate performances, and he still has a belief in the kind of England that crafts a wise, state-funded leveling path from cradle to grave. Ultimately, what makes a Loach film a Loach film isn't technical but emotional, a generous and sympathetic understanding of just how much it can take to eke out even small victories in this world.
But while doing "community payback" -- community service, as we'd call it here in the States -- Robbie comes under the wing of supervisor Harry (John Henshaw) and forms a loose friendship with fellow reforming delinquents like the laconic, lanky Rhino (William Ruane), the thick-but-steadfast Albert (Gary Maitland) and the light-fingered Mo (Jasmine Riggins). Harry's a loud man with a soft heart, and he likes Robbie, helping him and advising him and even introducing Robbie to the world of high-end Scotch whisky. And at first, tasting one of his homeland's cultural pillars for the first time, Robbie doesn't get it -- he makes a face and asks, "Can I add some Coca-Cola to this?"
But as Robbie realizes he literally has a nose for good scotch, the film firmly moves over from playing deep and moving chords of social realism and instead works the brighter end of the scales. Robbie, Rhino, Albert and Mo decide to try and steal some -- not all -- of a rare-beyond-rare cask of single malt scotch that's been found after decades of hiding. The cask has a million-pound value, and surely a near-priceless couple bottles won't go amiss ... if, of course, Robbie and his entry-level team of heist confederates can pull it off.
Loach shoots on 35 mm film and cuts on film, and that approach -- an old-school one in our digital age, but, when he started, the only option -- makes for a film that captures everything from the crummy claustrophobia of a bare room in a cheap apartment to the majesty of the Scottish Highlands; from the red-eyed rawness of a victim-assailant mediation meeting to the plush, moneyed world of rare scotch tasting and trading. Brannigan is clearly a product of the same streets as Robbie is, with bluff bravado both masking and, on occasion, unmaking the heart and mind within.
Still, it's a little dissatisfying that for all of the goodwill and good hope in "The Angels' Share," it's in many ways a celebration of one young man making a transition from violent crime against his own class ... to non-violent crime against another, different one. It's a "victory" that better reflects the easy-solutions nature of the cinema than, perhaps, the more problematic nature of the real world. "The Angels' Share" wants to be a single-malt scotch of a movie: handmade, small-batch, high-quality, distinctively made. But its happy ending feels like what Loach is assuredly capable of got diluted, with a sweeter and sicklier splash of Hollywood ending poured in at the last minute that dilutes the more bracing, higher-proof complexities and subtleties its characters and circumstance suggest before the clever capers and off-the-rack underdog's tale kick in.
James Rocchi has written reviews and articles for print and online publications, including Total Film Magazine, the Toronto Star, IndieWire's The Playlist, Mother Jones, AMCtv.com and Cinematical.com. He's covered film festivals including Sundance, Cannes, the Toronto International Film Festival, SXSW and Fantastic Fest. He's been an on-air reviewer for CBS-5 San Francisco and a reviewer and commentator for CNN, G4, TechTV and more. He lives in Los Angeles, which is both exactly and not at all like the movies suggest it is.