The Angels' Share: Cannes Review

The Angels' Share

A veteran with 10 red Cannes’ carpet, U.K. director Ken Loach, famous for being more feted in Europe than on British shores, brings an unusually optimistic film about a malt whisky heist to Cannes for a taste test.

Young offenders find novel escape route from life of crime.

Veteran social realist director Ken Loach's drama follows a young Glasgow man caught in a destructive cycle of violence, criminality and long-term unemployment.

CANNES - There is love, laughter and whisky galore in Ken Loach’s unusually joyful comedy drama about delinquent Scottish youths defying the odds society has stacked against them. This is the veteran British social realist’s ninth contender for the big prize in Cannes, the Palme d’Or, which he has won only once before in a career spanning over four decades.

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Co-produced and co-financed in France, where the 75-year-old director enjoys his biggest commercial audience, The Angels’ Share opens in Britain June 1 and is already assured a warm welcome across continental Europe. The thick Scottish accents of the protagonists may prove a barrier in some English-speaking territories, especially the U.S., requiring the same English subtitles they had in Cannes. But the sunny tone, plus the tourist-friendly blend of Scotch whisky and picture-postcard scenery, look sure to earn Loach a wider audience than usual.

The story hinges on Robbie, a young Glasgow man caught in a destructive cycle of violence, criminality and long-term unemployment. Soon to become a father for the first time, Robbie is sent by a lenient court judge to atone for his latest crimes on a “community payback” scheme. Here he meets a friendly gang of fellow misfits supervised by Harry (John Henshaw), a kindly Englishman and Scotch whisky aficionado. On a day trip to a rural distillery, the group learn about the small percentage of whisky that evaporates during the maturing process, poetically named “the angels’ share.”

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Discovering he has a natural nose as a whisky connoisseur, Robbie spots a chance to turn his life around, earn a decent wage and become a reliable new father. On hearing about an extremely rare cask of whisky set to fetch a million pounds at auction, he hatches an audacious scheme to steal just enough of this liquid gold to finance his escape plans. Mustering his fellow young offenders, he heads for the picture-postcard Scottish Highlands to stage one of the most bizarre and amateurish heists in cinema history.

A Scottish lawyer turned screenwriter, Paul Laverty is now Loach’s most prolific collaborator, notching up 10 shared credits to date. Like most of their previous films, The Angels’ Share offers a rare big-screen platform to working-class voices from the impoverished fringes of Scotland’s biggest city. But unlike most of the duo’s past work together, the prevailing tone here is upbeat and comic, with the generosity of spirit and softening of political dogma that has begun to shape Loach’s autumnal output, most notably his 2009 football-themed fantasy Looking for Eric.

Laverty acknowledges this shift himself, describing The Angels’ Share as a “little fable” with a dash of magical realism. To old-school fans of Loach’s polemical social dramas, this could be seen as some kind of sell-out. But others, myself included, believe he makes more honest and humane films when he relaxes his schematic leftism a little.

Sticking to his time-tested technique, Loach shoots The Angels’ Share on 35mm film in an unobtrusively realist manner that sometimes blurs into verite-style documentary. As usual, the script was shot in sequence, with actors drip-fed their lines to maintain emotional spontaneity. Once again, the ensemble cast are largely non-professionals, some with off-screen lives that mirror their characters. In his first ever film role, the wiry and intense Paul Brannigan makes a solid effort as Robbie. As the whisky expert Rory McAllister, the delightfully eccentric Charlie McLean is a joy to watch. Both are essentially playing themselves.

Loach has been in the movie game long enough now to become his own genre, spawning numerous film-making acolytes including Shane Meadows, Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold and Paddy Considine. But with The Angels’ Share, he looks a little beyond his own rulebook, most obviously invoking Alexander Mackendrick’s classic 1949 Ealing Studios comedy, Whisky Galore! There are also clear parallels with the Glaswegian director Bill Forsyth and his whimsical snapshots of wily Scottish youth, notably That Sinking Feeling and Gregory’s Girl. Plus maybe a wee dram of Alexander Payne’s Sideways too.

Laverty and Loach are sometimes criticized for their simplistic political sloganeering, but they can be equally heavy-handed in their comedy too. Much of the humor in The Angels’ Share relies on labored slapstick and boorish exaggeration, from jokes about vomit and flatulence to tired clichés about Scotsmen wearing no underwear beneath their kilts. The character of Albert in particular is repeatedly mocked as an ignorant clown too stupid to recognize either Edinburgh Castle or The Mona Lisa. This is an oddly mean-spirited caricature from such emphatically socialist film-makers.

The story’s tonal shifts are jarringly uneven in places, zigzagging from violent urban thriller to serious social drama to cheery comic caper. The final tying up of loose ends also feels implausibly neat and sweet, like the caramel coloring routinely added to whiskies that most connoisseurs deplore. These victimized characters may deserve their happy ending, but Loach and Laverty have arguably not quite earned theirs.

All the same, a few clumsy touches do not seriously diminish the charm of a film that is ultimately a heart-warming celebration of kindness, friendship and forgiveness. Like a fine whisky, the angry old man of British social realism seems to be mellowing with age. It suits him.
Cannes Film Festival (In Competition)
Venue: London press screening, May 8
Production Companies: Entertainment One, Sixteen Films, Why Not Productions, Wild Bunch
Cast: Paul Brannigan, John Henshaw, Roger Allam, Gary Maitland, Jasmin Riggins, Siobhan Reilly, William Ruane
Director: Ken Loach
Producer: Rebecca O’Brien
Director of photography: Robbie Ryan
Screenplay: Paul Laverty
Sales agent: Wild Bunch
Rating TBC, 106 minutes