The Angels’ Share

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday April 19, 2013

Paul Brannigan stars in ’The Angel’s Share’
Paul Brannigan stars in ’The Angel’s Share’  

The newest film from the filmmaking team that is screenwriter Paul Laverty and director Ken Loach unfolds on the mean streets of Glasgow, but takes on a golden hue with touches of sweetness -- rather like the Scotch whiskey that young Robbie (newcomer Paul Brannigan) learns to savor under the tutelage of a helpful friend.

Robbie is the young man at the heart of "The Angels' Share," a spirited, if low-proof, three-finger belt of a film. Robbie, scarred and rejected by respectable society, has lived a hardscrabble life; he's as much a victim as a perpetrator in a generations-long conflict with atavistic enemies.

He's small and thin, but he's also scrappy and filled with much so that in his latest confrontation he's beaten up three hoodlums. It's self-defense, but the severity of the thrashings he's meted out lands him in the dock, where he's sternly warned but then, because his girlfriend Leonie (Siobhan Reilly) is about to give birth to their child, he's given a sentence of community service.

What seems like a chance at a new beginning is dealt a swift kick to the tender parts. No sooner does Robbie show his face at the hospital to see Leonie and his son than her male relatives hustle him away for a beat-down that's probably not too different from the one that got him in trouble to begin with.

The attack has a witness in the person of Harry (John Henshaw), the supervisor of the work crew Robbie has joined to carry out his sentence. Seeing how angry and upset Robbie is, Harry breaks out a special brand of solace: a good bottle of scotch. Harry is an aficionado; Robbie, a typical lager lout, has never had it, but he's willing to learn. What he discovers is a rare talent for discerning the nuances of a well-crafted bottle.

The "angels' share" is the portion of liquor that evaporates right out of the sealed barrel. What's left is increasingly valuable because as years go by there's less in the barrel and the scotch has picked up more flavor.

Harry's a genial soul, and he takes an interest in his charges. Along with Robbie, he watches over and socializes with a motley group including shoplifter Mo (Jasmin Riggins), the clueless Albert (Gary Maitland) and a fellow with the intriguing nickname Rhino (William Ruane). One of Harry's outings is to a distillery, where his wards (and the audience) learn a thing or two about whiskey production and whiskey lore. The "angels' share," for example, is the portion of liquor that evaporates right out of the sealed barrel. What's left is increasingly valuable because as years go by there's less in the barrel, and the scotch has picked up more and more flavor from the wood.

Now for the meat of the movie: It seems that a barrel of a fabulously rare whiskey from a long-defunct distillery has been discovered. The barrel is several decades old; its age and uniqueness make its contents unbelievably valuable to well heeled collectors and connoisseurs.

It doesn't take long for Robbie to come up with the essentials of a plan that could provide him with enough money to get out of his neighborhood and the dead-end life it imposes on him. The challenge lies in working out the details and figuring out how to make the heist work with the help of his larcenous, but unreliable, friends.

Laverty's script keeps things bouncing along, offering surprises and humor along the way but sidestepping some obvious plot points (perhaps because they are so obvious). What can't be concealed is just how written to formula the movie is, and how faithfully it hews to the elements of its particular stripe of grimy working class (or out-of-work class) comedy.

The theft is designed to be a victimless crime; the entire plot is a device intended to underscore the reality that playing by the rules isn't enough any longer. To succeed, you have to be smart, tough and willing to color outside the lines.

Loach's direction, and the likeable cast, make this rather dire social comment seem affable -- not such a bad thing, considering the movie's medicine could have been swaddled in sugary fluff, but this movie doesn't have the essential moxie it needs to rise above the typical tropes of its genre and setting.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.