I couldn’t get to a screening of The Angel’s Share south of the border when the film was on general release, despite the critical praise the movie attracted. Today I finally caught up with the film on DVD and I’m glad I did. The Angel’s Share is a typical piece of Social Realism from the man behind the likes of Kes and The Wind that Shakes the Barley. The plot focuses on a young thug called Robbie (Paul Brannigan) from the rough streets of Glasgow’s East End. After narrowly escaping prison following his latest arrest he is given community service under the guidance of Harry (John Henshaw). Harry tries to get his guys back on the straight and narrow and introduces them to the delights of whiskey tasting, something which Robbie picks up very quickly. When the group discover a valuable cask is about to come up for auction they realise they can use it as a means of escaping the gutter.
The Angel’s Share is a beautiful phrase and is used to denote the 2% of whiskey which is evaporated from barrels each year. Later it is given another, equally poignant meaning. The film is equally as darkly comic as it is rough and Glasgow is depicted as the sort of place that you’d never want to visit. It makes Baltimore in The Wire look like Disney Land. Through the poverty and dirt though emerges hope in the form of Robbie, a man on his final chance. He is inches from prison and has a violent gang on his back as well as a new born baby so decides that now is the time to get out of Glasgow and start afresh. The way in which this is attempted is highly original, entertaining and funny.
The acting is excellent throughout and Loach makes use of a lot of unknowns and first timers as well as well weathered faces to give his typical sense of realism. At times it is more like a documentary than feature and this is mostly down to the acting and camera work. The camera tends to follow the characters from behind or to the side, rarely showing them face on. This gives the effect that it isn’t really there or at least shouldn’t be and adds to the lifelike feel of the film. If with a group, the camera acts as a member of the group, standing between characters, observing. Even the louder, more extreme characters like the sometimes caricatured Albert (Gary Maitland) are grounded in reality and the comedy is never taken to surrealist levels. You can imagine he is the sort of guy you’d see on a bus and would try to avoid while laughing from behind your scarf.
The sociological side of the film comes out very strong but isn’t anything that hasn’t been seen before. In a sense the plot is very traditional and is basically about a bad guy with a good heart, trying to escape a bad place in order to help himself and his family. What Loach brings to this is a lifetime of working on this sort of story and a deep understanding of the character’s plight. Robbie even admits that a lot of what he does is to save face and that feuds are circular. He is in one cycle of violence with a man which was started by both their fathers and his girlfriend is worried that it will continue with their young son. All of this makes for very engrossing viewing and is occasionally tough to watch but thankfully the story allows for lots of funny moments with the laughs usually provided by the supporting cast. Albert’s lack of understanding of basic concepts and famous historical figures is always amusing and Mo’s (Jasmin Riggins) constant thieving is played up for comic effect. Even Harry’s misuse of phrases such as Philippine instead of Philistine is comic gold. The film straddles comedy and drama very well.
If the film has a fault it is in the caper element of the plot. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it but just that in a film with such attention to realist issues and behaviours the caper felt a little too farcical. Even with this though both my girlfriend and I jumped at a vital moment that threatened to derail the whole plan. Overall The Angel’s Share is a very good movie but isn’t up there with Ken Loach’s best. It’s dramatic, funny and heart-warming and if ye cn penatreet tha thack scoss ass'un it’s a really enjoyable film.