Seventy-five-year-old British filmmaker Ken Loach fashioned a long and fruitful career by focusing his work on the kind of true-to-life working-class characters seldom found in mainstream movies. Often described as social realist, Loach's films feature naturalistic dialogue that sometimes seems improvised but actually sticks closely to carefully crafted scripts. Winner of the Jury Prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, The Angels' Share gradually develops two remarkable qualities not normally associated with Loach's movies: warmth and humor. No one would confuse The Angels' Share with a full-on comedy in the traditional sense. But with its light tone and uplifting message, the film does constitute a welcome late-career surprise from the director.
The Angels' Share starts out as harshly realistic as any of Loach's films. A charismatic kid with a penchant for explosive violence on the streets of Glasgow, Scotland, Robbie (newcomer Paul Brannigan) escapes incarceration only by virtue of his pregnant girlfriend Leonie (Siobhan Reilly). But Leonie's uncles want to kill Robbie, and her father tries to bribe him to leave town. While serving his hours of community service, Robbie meets a group of equally wayward miscreants along with work supervisor Harry (John Henshaw), who takes Robbie under his wing. A new world opens up for the ragtag crew when whisky aficionado Harry takes them on a tour of one of Scotland's great distilleries. The film's title refers to the 2 percent that evaporates while the spirits age in oak barrels. The whisky becomes a metaphor for the possibility of finding something of value and meaning in an era where more than a million young people are unemployed in Great Britain alone. Then the whole thing turns into a wonderfully low-tech heist movie.
By giving his typically troubled characters a believable shot at redemption, Loach opens up his politically progressive worldview to a wider potential audience. But The Angels' Share transcends politics by making its case solely through character and story. It's hard to imagine anyone objecting to the film on sociopolitical grounds. Its only overt message is that even the direst circumstances can be transformed by simple acts of kindness and respect. Just about everyone can raise a glass to that. — KEN KORMAN