You Have Been Watching…The Angels’ Share

Before reviewing Ken Loach’s The Angels’ Share I have to mention the marketing of the film, with one poster quote particularly problematic. JohnNaughton, reviewing it for GQ magazine, declared it “Scotland’s answer to The Full Monty“, and the producers immediately stuck that on the posters. They may believe this will draw a larger audience than would usually go to a Loach movie, and they may be right, but it nearly put me off.

Not that The Full Monty isn’t an enjoyable film. I watched it again recently and it’s a proper heart warmer with strong performances, but it suffers as much as any film from the fact that the name has become shorthand for a certain kind of ‘winning against the odds’ movie. Its success spawned a rash of imitators, most of which were terrible; films such as Blackball and the Craig Ferguson fronted The Big Tease. For many film fans such a recommendation will cause alarm bells to ring. Luckily for Loach, he is likely to always be given the benefit of the doubt. He deserves it.

Better comparisons would be with Bill Forsyth’s That Sinking Feeling, Michael Hoffman’s Restless Natives or even Whisky Galore. As with those earlier films, Loach manages to make an audience sympathise with lead characters who break the law.  However, The Angels’ Share doesn’t share their consistency of tone, and indeed that of the director’s own My Name is Joe, Riff Raff and Raining Stones, all of which marry black comedy and social commentary with greater success. Of course there’s always going to be light and shade in any Ken Loach movie, but in this case they often jar rather than work together. My favourite of his films remains Kes, where moments of real comedy sat easily with the brutal social landscape and pathos of Barry Hines’ source novel. This is the high standard set, and The Angels’ Share falls short.

Perhaps this is down to the script of long time Loach collaborator, writer Paul Laverty. Other projects the two have worked on include some of best British films ever made, such as Carla’s Song, the aforementioned My Name is Joe and Sweet Sixteen, but recently they haven’t come near those dizzy heights. Looking for Eric was, like The Angels’ Share, only a partial success, and the less said about Ae Fond Kiss the better. Don’t misunderstand; The Angels’ Share is an enjoyable, and often thought provoking, hour and a half that will be superior to most of the films you’ll see this summer, it’s just that those who love Loach want to see his best work. It’s his own fault for being great.

The story centres on four young offenders who end up doing what is now called ‘community payback’, painting the walls of a run down hall. Bonding together over a new found love of whisky, and the need for money, they devise an ingenious plan to mix the two. As with many Loach/Laverty plots it is based upon giving people second, and sometimes third, chances. They believe in fundamental human decency and the possibility of redemption for all, and focus attention on the unfairness and inequality in society, but they have expressed these beliefs previously with a lighter touch than this. When he moves the action out of the city Loach relies a little too much on the stereotypes of kilts, Irn Bru, Highland cows and a soundtrack of the Proclaimers, all of which are a reflection of the lack of subtlety in the storytelling.

The lead character is soon to be new father Robbie, played by first time actor Paul Brannigan, and he does a fair job while never having the on screen charisma of previous Loach leads such as Robert Carlyle, Martin Compston or David Bradley. His life at the point we meet him has been one of violence and survival, and, although he tries hard to win our affections, it is difficult to forget or forgive Robbie’s previous crimes, especially a brutal assault which is chillingly recollected. In our recent podcast on Scottish TV, Colin McCredie spoke of his being uncomfortable that Loach continues to use non-actors in his films when there is less work than ever for those who are trained. This was admittedly before he had seen the film and I’d like to know what he feels about Brannigan’s performance. You may disagree with Colin, but before you do you should have a listen to his argument in full, which you can do by listening to Scots Whay Hae! Podcast 17.

There are plenty of Loach regulars in place, and faces you’ll recognise from Scottish stage and screen (as well as a non-speaking role for former Rangers’ and Dundee United player Charlie Miller, and a cameo for Ted who drinks in a few of my local boozers!). Standout is John Henshaw as the support worker who introduces Robbie and his fellow community servers to the delights of malt whisky, and who takes the troubled Robbie under his wing. There is a bond between the two that is heart warming and believable, and which is one of the film’s highlights. Also present are Roger Allam, Jimmy Chisolm, Paul Birchard and Nick Farr, all of who will be faces where you’ll go “where do I know him from?”.

But the film lives and dies on the young leads, and, Brannigan aside, there are good turns from Jasmin Riggins, William Ruane and, as the comedy fall guy Albert, Gary Maitland. The four work well together, and we root for them as the moment of truth approaches. In fact you could say that this is a film of two halves; 45 minutes of social realism vs 45 minutes of broad comedy. The first contains shocks, and the second has genuine laughs, but the fact that I can describe it so is perhaps the best indicator as to the film’s inconsistencies. Here’s the trailer:

What should never be underestimated is the legacy that Ken Loach has left to Scottish film. You could argue that he has mainly focused on the darker corners of Glasgow, or Greenock in the case of Sweet Sixteen, (with the exception of the underwhelming Ae Fond Kiss), but he has always brought a humanity and dignity to a part of Scotland where such representations certainly used to be few and far between. In the scheme of such a career my complaints against The Angels’ Share are mere quibbles, and as ever I look forward to what Loach does next. I for one will miss him when packs his camera away.

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