The working class are a little funny in “The Angels’ Share,” English director Ken Loach’s new bluecollar comedy. “The Angels’ Share” is Loach’s (“Kes”) latest film to play Cannes after his “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” won the 2006 Palme D’Or and both "Route Irish" and "Looking for Eric" played in competition in 2010 and 2009, respectively. Tonally, Loach’s latest is more of a piece with “Looking for Eric” than “Sweet Sixteen,” though all three films concern young people looking for a way to find a loophole and rise above their lousy social stations in life.
In Loach’s recent films, capitalism is like a ponzi scheme and his well-intentioned protagonists are all victims looking to get out with a little something for themselves. In “The Angels’ Share,” members of a Scottish, court-mandated community service group plot to make a little money for themselves and are generically rewarded for their efforts. Make no mistake, Loach doesn’t want his viewers to take his new film seriously beyond a certain point, and that self-limiting quality makes “The Angels’ Share”'s light-hearted but dim-witted comedy feel that much more dissatisfying.
According to Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty, there some things that matter more than others when it comes to understanding who Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a young lad living in Glasgow, is. Robbie’s about to become a father, a fact that his lawyer uses to reduce his prison sentence. Robbie’s newfound responsibility understandably matters to Loach and Laverty more than the severity of the crime that Robbie committed: while on drugs, Robbie pulled a bystander out of his car and beat him so badly that he blinded the stranger in one eye and seriously traumatized him. This incident is directly related via his victim and his victim’s mother’s spoken word testimony, which is also accompanied by flashbacks of the crime and Robbie’s sobs. But still: Robbie is briefly shown to feel remorseful now. So the crime, no matter how serious, doesn’t really matter to Loach and Laverty beyond the fact that it’s a bad thing that Robbie’s trying to put behind him. This is especially sad considering that Leonie (Siobhan Reilly), Robbie’s wife, even lamely asks, “Do they count,” about his victims.
What really matters in “The Angels’ Share” is that Robbie wants to change, a sentiment that is taken at face value, as is much of the film’s woefully underdeveloped dramatic plot points. More importantly, Robbie wants to improve his station in life for his newborn son’s sake. He even promises to his baby son that, while he can’t seem to avoid local hyper-violent thug Clancy (Scott Kyle), he will not commit another violent act. So Robbie takes his community service seriously and winds up befriending a motley crew that’s led by level-headed grou sponsor Harry (John Henshaw), and includes a kleptomaniac and a wacky sitcom-style weirdo with coke bottle-lens glasses that doesn’t know what the “Mona Lisa” is or who Albert Einstein is either. Together, they come up with a scheme to extra-legally make some money.
I say “extra-legally” and not “illegally” because in Loach and Laverty’s book, this crime is the equivalent of a little white lie. It’s assumed to be a minor infraction, even if the item that’s being boosted is priceless and assumed to be extremely rare. This is presumably because the object that the group tries to steal and sell is an aged bottle of whiskey. Again, Loach and Laverty understandably assume that their viewers’ common sense will dictate that stealing a bottle of whiskey is not such a serious crime in light of how backed-up against a wall we’re told Robbie has become.
But that’s just it: we don’t really see how desperate Robbie’s situation beyond the omnipresent threat of violence posed by Clancy and his violent Cro-Magnon friends. We’re told that Robbie can’t find a job, and we do see him refuse his equally pig-headed father-in-law’s offer to set him up Robbie up in London provided that he leave his wife and son behind in Glasgow. But beyond that, we don’t really know why Robbie has to game the system and steal whiskey for his family’s sake.
There are a lot of similar gaps in logic behind “The Angels’ Share,” named after the 2% of aged whiskey that tends to evaporate over the course of a year, which is genial but undercooked. The heist scene in the film seems deliberately suspense-free, adopting Loach’s usual fly on the wall style of drama but going so far as to include a cheesy music cues to remind you that something suspenseful is sort of happening.
Similarly, slimy and devious whiskey connoisseur Thaddeus (Roger Allam, playing to type beautifully) is presented as an opportunist throughout but conveniently winds up holding up his end of the bargain he strikes with Robbie at the last minute. Some good laughs and a passable air of bonhomie do nothing to cover up the fact that “The Angels’ Share” is totally lightweight and distractingly underdone. [C-]