Ken Loach is not known for his sense of humor. Year after year, with tireless dedication, he puts out marvelous movies that I never want to watch more than once. Always despondence and desolation, typically filmed in Glasgow, where the accents are so thick, the movies arrive here with subtitles even though they are ostensibly in English. (I can’t make out a word of them.) Loach’s universe is one of petty domestic abusers and small-time crooks, photographed in an artless vacuum of staid camera placement and ugly backgrounds.
The Angels’ Share is different. It might be the first Ken Loach movie you could call “jaunty.” That stupid Proclaimers song that served as such a ubiquitous earworm during the 1990s plays here more than once during wacky comedic montages, and then again at the end. I normally would walk 500 miles just to get away from that tune, but it kind of works here. It’s the typical Loach Glaswegian miserablism with a fairytale Ocean’s Eleven twist.
The tone is set straight off with Gary Maitland’s nudnick sidekick stumbling onto the train tracks wasted on cheap wine, while the transit announcer finds all sorts of new applications for the c-word ordering him over a loudspeaker to get himself to safety. (“This is God speaking. Get off the fookin’ tracks.”) We soon fall in with a rag-tag band of fuckups, assigned to community service detail in lieu of prison sentences. They’re lorded over by Big Harry (John Henshaw, channeling the ghost of Brendan Gleeson, even though the latter isn’t dead yet). They’re all busy painting over community rec centers and picking up litter when suddenly, he takes them on a field trip to Edinburgh. For a whiskey conference.
The delicacies and intricacies of good Scotch come into play here, and out of nowhere, a young street hoodlum named Robbie, played by Paul Brannigan, becomes an instant expert, demonstrating a nose for casks that awes even those snobs at the tastings.
He’s not doing well. In fact, he seems to live in other miserable Loach films from which this is designed as a vacation. In and out of jail, he just knocked up his girlfriend, and now her dad and his pals are just gonna beat the crap out of him on a regular basis until he skedaddles out of town with the five grand they’re offering to stay out of the child’s life. Robbie’s run out of options. But there’s always whiskey. And when an ancient barrel of a priceless blend goes up for auction somewhere up in the highlands, our hero figures out how to swipe it.
This is a very funny movie, which was entirely unexpected. It becomes a bit of a lark, as George Fenton’s tacky, intrusive score takes a turn for ‘80s synthesizer-heavy goofballery, and you might wonder if Loach has lost his marbles. He’s got one foot in kitchen sink poverty drama and the other in a wacky heist picture. It shouldn’t work as well as it does. The title refers to the amount of whiskey that evaporates in a cask, and Loach sure puts that punchline to use.
I loved Maitland—so drunk all the time, he doesn’t know what year it even is and has a hilarious adverse reaction to the fabric of kilt rubbing up against his nether regions. The gang is rounded out with a kleptomaniac named Mo, one toothless wonder and Brannigan’s Robbie, who transforms into a leading man before our very eyes.
Whiskey expert Charlie MacLean sort of plays himself, and there is no small shortage of jokes at the expense of a buffoonish American millionaire wearing a Boston Red Sox cap. But Brannigan stands tall, coming into himself and masterminding his group of doofy layabouts with a command that turns from wormy to movie-starrish within the later reels. It’s a terrific performance.
Sure, it’s a silly film, and with a few of the rougher edges sanded down—and several hundred c-words dubbed over—it might be the kind of thing you could picture Miramax releasing back in the ‘80s. The Angels’ Share is a real crowd-pleaser, crude and unexpectedly disarming.
Loach, at 76 years old, had to lighten up at some point—even though I hate him for getting that Proclaimers song stuck in my head again.