On Movies: 'Angels' Share' is but a wee dram of high spirits
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The title of the breezy British comedy "The Angels' Share" refers to the small, heaven-bound percentage of whisky that evaporates from a barrel in the aging process. Robbie, the film's protagonist, is no angel, except in the sweetly ironic tradition of movies like "We're No Angels" and "Angels with Dirty Faces." But he is determined to get his share of a cask of rare Scottish malt whisky that is coming up for auction and that is expected to draw bids in the hundreds of thousands of pounds sterling.
"The Angels' Share" was directed by Ken Loach, who is known for his working-class heroes. Robbie is a young Glasgow roughneck, a poor ex-con whose future is looking dim indeed when two events make him reassess his life: He has a painful and conscience-stirring visit with a man he half-blinded in an assault, and he is becoming a father.
Determined to go straight, Robbie becomes part of a work-release detail of similar former miscreants; and on a visit to a distillery hosted by a kindly supervisor, he learns about the rarefied world of malt whisky. Poor Scots like Robbie and his friends are total strangers to the ultra-snobbish cult of single malts, but Robbie is a quick study, and pretty soon he's spouting blarney about a particular malt's nose and its earthy undertones and that faint hint of Colombian chocolate.
Robbie promised his girlfriend he would stay away from crime, but he figures one last criminal act will set him up so he can begin supporting a family by honest toil. Stealing from the kind of rich snobs who pay tons of money for an old barrel of alcohol hardly seems like a crime to Robbie, or for that matter, to director Loach or Scottish screenwriter Paul Laverty.
So Robbie and his mates -- two young men and a young woman, all raised on the streets -- don kilts for show and hitchhike north to the Scottish Highlands and the auction, determined to filch at least some of the treasured whisky. Once at the distillery, they pretend to be working-class malt-whisky aficionados as Robbie comes up with a risky heist scheme that is positively Dickensian, with Robbie as the Artful Dodger.
Robbie is played by Paul Brannigan, a young Glasgow actor whose real background is much like his character's, and Brannigan plays the part with a loose-limbed volatility that is totally convincing. One reason Robbie seems so real may be the camerawork. I am indebted to the late Roger Ebert for informing me that director Ken Loach helped achieve the sense that he is eavesdropping on real people like Robbie doing real deeds by shooting many of his scenes through a telephoto lens. It's as if he is spying on his own characters.
The movies of Loach, who is in his 70s and came of age in the era of the Angry Young Man, are described by the reliable Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com) as "socialist realism," and I've seen that description repeated elsewhere.
Well, Loach is certainly a socialist, and he's certainly a realist, but the words taken together reek of Marxist doctrine, a rejection of true realism in favor of propaganda. Loach is a humanist, and a humorist, and his slum-bred characters may, in part, be victims of their circumstances in that the odds are stacked against them from birth. But characters like Robbie can make choices, too, and Robbie chooses love and family and a non-aggression pact with the world. But first he's got to steal some whisky.
"The Angel's Share" is funny, sweet, even charming, and unpredictable. And, bless Ken Loach, Americans can understand it. The various Scottish accents are sometimes hard to follow, but Loach has done us all a favor -- the movie is being shown in the United States with English subtitles.