At first glance, “The Angel’s Share” seems to indicate that the collaborations of British director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty are pivoting onto a more lighthearted path after such sobering dramas as “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.” But despite its ultimate sense of optimism, the Glasgow-set dramedy nevertheless carries a sense of foreboding.
And yet, that might not have been the intention.
“The Angel’s Share” is a bit of a shape-shifter. The film opens with laughs as a docket of petty criminals — a macaw thief, a disorderly drunkard, a monument defacer — are sentenced to community service. The mood rapidly darkens with the tale of another criminal, Robbie (Paul Brannigan). Caught in an intergenerational feud with another family, Robbie can’t seem to escape a cycle of violence that repeatedly lands him in front of a judge. But when his girlfriend gives birth to their son, Robbie vows to change.
This proves challenging both because the ex-con can’t get a job and because his nemesis refuses to leave him alone. A social worker, who manages Robbie’s community service, takes pity on the young man. The kindhearted Harry (John Henshaw) gives Robbie advice and a place to stay and introduces him to whisky, which turns out to be the new father’s salvation.
Robbie has an impressive sniffer for discerning spirits, and before long he’s listening to experts discuss beverages that have “a maritime nose” and “a smoky finish.” His newfound talent leads to an idea for a heist for which he recruits some of the thieves and troublemakers who appeared during the film’s first minutes.
At this point, the mood again lightens, transforming into an almost farcical comedy with a bit of gross-out humor and a running gag about the epic idiocy of one of Robbie’s accomplices.
Yet the aesthetic remains true to Loach’s realism. Grittiness prevails and every scene seems to unfold under a blanket of clouds. Likewise, the actors give off an unstudied quality, as many, including the tremendous Brannigan, are first-time film stars. It works, right down to the characters’ thick brogues (there are, thankfully, subtitles).
But back to the movie’s big challenges. The first is that our hero is not merely a victim of circumstance. Early on, one of Robbie’s innocent victims confronts him, and the reenactment of a fateful night is particularly hard to watch. An audience loves rooting for an underdog, but what about a barbarian underdog? One could argue that complicated humans are truer to life, but this development makes the climactic heist a little less exciting. Do we really want the protagonist to succeed?
The “angel’s share” of the title refers to the small percentage of whisky that evaporates at the distillery. It’s an optimistic view of losing something valuable, imagining a carefully crafted product floating up to the heavens and into the cups of beneficent guardians. If only it were so easy with Robbie. He shows glimmers of altruism, but not enough to erase the troubling undercurrents from a touching finale.
(106 minutes, at Landmark’s E Street Cinema) is not rated. It contains strong language and violence.