Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Angels' Share

The Angels' Share (2013)
Dir. Ken Loach

4.5 out of 5

There's a parable that's repeated in the excellent social drama-cum-heist movie The Angels' Share, involving a self-professed smuggler repeatedly crossing a border with a donkey.  Years of searches reveal no contraband, baffling the authorities until the criminal, now retired, confesses that the whole time he was smuggling...donkeys.  Likewise, The Angels' Share hides its true nature in plain sight, using a lighthearted caper set in the world of fine Scotch whisky to weave a larger tale of working-class plight and urban poverty in Glasgow, Scotland.  It's the Sideways of kitchen sink realism.

Diminutive scrapper Robbie (newcomer Paul Brannigan) receives his last chance at an honest life when he's assigned to community service instead of prison at the beginning of the film.  It's not his first run-in with the law, but you hope it's his last, given that his girlfriend, Leonie (Siobhan Reilly), is about to give birth to their son.  Robbie vows to turn a new leaf, but finds it difficult to shake his criminal past and the memory of a vicious beating he gave to a middle-class teen while high on cocaine.  Whilst serving his sentence, Robbie meets a new group of friends - jovial rabble-rouser Rhino (William Ruane), spunky kleptomaniac Mo (Jasmin Riggins), and cranky half-wit Albert (Gary Maitland) - who develop a fascination with top-label whisky thanks to a distillery tour organized by their supervisor (John Henshaw).  When they hear that an extremely rare cask of spirits is going up for auction somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, the four misfits hatch a plan to steal some of "the wee dram" right from under the noses of the world's most prominent whisky connoisseurs.

Legendary director Ken Loach - best known for his sympathetic warts-and-all portraits of the British working class - achieves a kind of miracle, crafting a magnificently heartwarming and accessible film that spends a lot of time languishing in grimy despair.  Robbie is less of a plucky underdog than a tragic hero.  Everyone, including Robbie, seems to assume that he is trapped in a perpetual cycle of violence and poverty.  Having a child inspires him with a chance to break that cycle ("You only get one shot at being a wee baby," says stalwart mother Leonie) but Loach and frequent collaborator Paul Laverty don't rely on simple emotional manipulation to generate empathy for these characters, even when the film takes a broad turn in its sillier, more straightforward second half.  Despite their disadvantages, they are not greedy or malicious; they're stealing from the rich to sell to the super-rich, like a bunch of entrepreneurial Robin Hoods who just want their own modest piece of the pie.  An immensely entertaining film, The Angels' Share is also a whimsical and essential argument in favor of social justice - even in the slang of its title, which refers to the daily evaporation of whisky stored in wooden casks - reminding us that everything the haves take for granted could make a big difference in the lives of the have-nots.

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