Lewis Camley needs a stiff drink after seeing Ken Loach’s new film.
Dir. Ken Loach
Looking up at Edinburgh Castle, John Henshaw, playing the likeable community service co-ordinator Harry, laughs at daft Albert (Gary Maitland), who fails to recognise the iconic fortress on the hill. “Did you not have shortbread in your house?”, Harry chuckles at Albert’s latest gaffe, along with most of the audience. It seems Ken Loach must have had. ‘The Angel’s Share’ is the veteran director’s sixth film set in Scotland; an unusual blend of social realism and comic caper which won him the Jury Prize at last month’s Cannes Film Festival
This is hardly new ground for Loach, both in terms of location and subject. The story of a group of no-hope petty criminals from Glasgow, and their attempts to traverse the dangers of love, family, gang violence and the justice system, the first half of the film feels much like 2002’s ‘Sweet Sixteen’. As in that film, Loach has uncovered a number of non-professional and first-time actors – and again casting William Ruane, whose debut came in that film – while backing them up with the experience of Henshaw and the perfectly cast Roger Allam. Lead actor Paul Brannigan, who has very much lived the life of Robbie, the violent yet intelligent – even warm – new father at the heart of the film, puts in a great performance, able to combine chaotic energy with coolness and clarity, whether playing father, fighter or leader.
The film shifts in the second half from Loach’s typical kitchen-sink realism to a comedy heist, with the characters heading north in hopes of claiming a rare whiskey for themselves – or rather, the cash they can get for it. Narrative transformation is perhaps not quite matched by the characters, then. This is a welcome change, given the heavy tone of the opening section – a brand of Glaswegian darkness which audiences, after last year’s NEDS among others, might be tiring of. And indeed it does become a light-hearted, fairly funny film from here on in; haphazard criminality coupled with witty and often silly colloquial dialogue can’t help but raise a few smiles. The very ‘Kes’-like emergence of Robbie’s secret talent and a conclusion which, for me at least, was quite surprising, given Loach’s usual take on social politics, allowed the film to offer some hope of redemption both to the characters and to the kind of world which they come from.
However, shortbread and Edinburgh Castle may hold more sway on the film than first appears; and though it may be becoming an increasingly common complaint about Scottish cinema, the disparity between audience and characters – even cast – left me a little uncomfortable at times. Not only in the prevalence of whiskey – evoking the Ealing comedy ‘Whiskey Galore!’ – but in the locations of the film, and even it’s soundtrack (playing The Proclaimer’s 500 Miles as the quartet travel north) does the film fall back occasionally on stereotypes of the nation. Most tellingly, Maitland, a comic revelation at times, bizarrely barks Scottish names and tropes at the policemen who harass them late in the film: “Billy Connolly, Robert the Bruce, Sir Alex Ferguson… Braveheart ya bastards!” Whether this is his own brand of narrow patriotism or a joke at its expense, I’ve yet to decide, but given the film’s involvement at Cannes, I couldn’t help but baulk at the Scotland being offered to the world.
Similarly, that this gang of misfits, struggling to cope with economic and social abandonment in the poverty of inner-city Glasgow, were laughed at for their lack of knowledge, particularly ‘high-brow’ cultural knowledge of whiskey, and their feckless attempts at impure personal improvement, seemed unfair, and not in keeping with Loach’s ethos. Perhaps we should give the director the benefit of the doubt in this respect: his addressing of urban poverty is second to none and in this case it was refreshingly upbeat, but it remains a little discomforting.
Like it’s namesake, that percentage of whiskey which is evaporated in the distilling process, ‘The Angel’s Share’ floats after the sharp kick of it’s opening flavours. Ken Loach remains a fine malt of a director, but taken in excess, some viewer’s might lose their taste for this film. It is enlivened by angels – particularly the sad father-figure of Harry – but visited by demons – and not all of them are part of the cast.