The Angels’ Share
“The Angels’ Share” is really two rather different movies, either of which I would’ve enjoyed watching on their own, but that don’t really fit together in any satisfying or even logical way.
The bulk of it is a rough-and-tumble drama about Robbie, a young Scottish thug trying to turn his life around, bonding with his community service coordinator and vowing to become a better man for his girlfriend and newborn son. It’s a gloomy yet affecting story, with Paul Brannigan quietly charismatic in his debut role.
But then the film turns, seemingly on a dime, into a whimsical caper/comedy about Robbie and his fellow ex-cons conspiring to pilfer some bottles from an extremely rare cask of whiskey. It’s a jolly sequence, as lightweight as a breeze wafting over the highlands.
And therein lies the problem. These two tales are completely different in tone and mood, one heavy and sobering and the other joyous and trivial.
Cinematically speaking, they occupy different corners of the periodic table. Trying to graft them onto each other feels like an ill-conceived alchemy experiment.
I still enjoyed the movie in its pieces, though the experience is like two boxes of puzzle pieces that got jumbled together.
Robbie is a lifelong criminal, the child of deadbeats and a future one himself. He’s been in jail several times, including a stint for seriously disfiguring another youngster. The scene where Robbie meets with his victim and family is unnerving and powerful.
When we first encounter Robbie, he’s just been in another scrape with a longtime rival, and the prospect of serious prison time seems real. But the judge is swayed by his stable relationship with Leonie (Siobhan Reilly) and their forthcoming baby, and sentences him to community service.
Harry (John Henshaw) is an older single chap who coordinates the offenders’ service. He immediately takes a shine to Robbie, and there’s a hint of trouble in his own past. Harry sees the challenges Robbie’s up against, including his girlfriend’s brothers beating him to a pulp in the hospital and warning him never to come near his own son.
Harry also introduces his young ward to his love of fine whiskey, and they discover Robbie has a fine nose. This leads to a trip to a countryside distillery, the revelation about an invaluable Malt Mill cask that will soon go to auction and an introduction to Thaddeus (Roger Allam), a veteran whiskey dealer who will become important later on.
(The title refers to the 2% of the spirits lost to evaporation every year.)
Robbie forms a crew from his fellow ex-cons, including Rhino (William Ruane), an agreeable scamp, compulsive kleptomaniac Mo (Jasmin Riggins) and Albert (Gary Maitland), an affable lummox who’s so dimwitted he seems to have sprung forth from the earth, innocent of history or even basic knowledge about the world around him. (Confronted with Edinburgh Castle overlooking the city from a cliff, Albert demands, “Why’d they put it up there?!?”)
Director Ken Loach, working with longtime screenwriting collaborator Paul Laverty, has long made it his mission to focus on working-class citizens of the U.K. and to find compelling stories amid their everyday tribulations.
His best move was casting the unknown Brannigan, who had his own real-life scrapes with violence and the law. (The nasty scar on his cheek isn’t a makeup effect.) He reminds us of a young Ewan McGregor, who broke out nearly two decades ago with “Trainspotting.” The first part of “The Angels’ Share” favorably recalls that film, but the latter portion belongs to a different category of filmmaking altogether.