The Angels’ Share won the jury prize at 2012’s Cannes Film Festival and is the latest in the long and varied career of Ken Loach (KES, My Name is Joe, The Wind that Shakes the Barley), considered to be arguably one of Britain’s most treasured directors. A fellow of the British Film Institute (BFI), he has for decades specialized in representing a realistic portrait of Britain and those forgotten or at least marginalized by the lingering class system.
Paul Brannigan stars as Robbie, a young, Scottish man with a hard past who is faced with an ultimatum as he stares down possible jail time for a violent crime. His young partner, Leonie, played by Siobhan Reilly, is pregnant and presses Robbie to get straight for their unborn child. Caught between the violent legacy of his father and the promise of a new future, Robbie’s journey details what can happen to a young person when there are limited choices available to them and what happens when a new vision is offered, as in the case of Harry, played by John Henshaw, who introduces Robbie to the world of high-end whiskey tasting.
I really wanted the The Angels’ Share to work, and while it did on several levels, it ultimately fell flat. The performances of Brannigan as the struggling, thuggish youth is honest and raw and remains one of the highlights of the film, but the film suffers from unrealistic aspirations.
The film opens with a sentencing hearing for a parade of Scottish petty criminals. Shuffled before the viewer, they are varied in age and stand accused of equally varying crimes. They share the same limited future; however, as a lawyer argues for special considerations in Robbie’s case due to his pending fatherhood, the audience sees the same path laid out before him as he does for himself, one of short duration and a violent end.
The first 30-45 minutes of the film were interesting as we sympathize with a young man wanting to break free of a criminal past. However, as Harry introduces Robbie to whiskey tasting, an attempt at showing him the world outside of a thug culture, the plausibility begins to dissipate. After a trip to a whiskey distillery, Robbie becomes interested in the subtle variances in whiskey and begins to study on his own time. Soon, he is recognized as having an excellent “nose” and can decipher different whiskeys with ease, all the while trying to stay straight and raise his new son.
That would have been at least somewhat believable, but it is with the introduction of an ultra-rare batch of priceless whiskey that Robbie schemes to pilfer where it becomes just silly. To avoid spoilers I will not go into great detail, but I would think that an ultra-rare batch of priceless whiskey that is about to be auctioned off to worldwide fanfare would have more of an alarm system than a single trip wire. The payoff is far too easy, the plot devices too transparent to be move beyond a warm-hearted, comedic romp and into a much needed social exploration that it could have been.
The Angels’ Share does have its positives which again lie in the performances. There are the performances of Robbie’s partners in crime, played by Gary Maitland, Jasmin Riggins and William Ruane, who provide a much needed (if slightly stereotypical) laugh. However, my favorite was John Henshaw as Harry. His intense, realistic performance was a great match to Brannigan’s and is the perfect mentor for a struggling youth with a desperate need for a second chance.
While the film was entertaining along the way, The Angels’ Share attempts to ask some tough questions, however for this viewer, the answers were unrealistic and far too convenient.