The Angel’s Share
Directed by Ken Loach
Starring Paul Brannigan, John Henshaw, and Gary Maitland
Think of maybe the last truly obscene word in the English language, one that’s managed to retain a little bit of shock value even in contexts where the F-word flies free — I doubt you’d hear it on a trading floor.
But if you’re one of the scrappy Glaswegians in Ken Loach’s The Angel’s Share, you apply this word with cheerful and absolute indiscrimination. To women, of course, but also to men, to the young and to the old, to nuclear family and to oblivious pedestrians, to television sets and to car hoods — you use it in anger and in affection. Sometimes you modify it with “wee,” and sometimes you leave it monosyllabic and pure.
Now the right conclusion to draw, I suspect, is not that working-class Scots are surprisingly lewd, but that our sensibilities are surprisingly malleable: hearing the word was a little uncomfortable the first time or ten, but by the end of the movie it sounded about as scandalous as “dingbat.” I’m glad I didn’t say it on autopilot to the teenage popcorn boy on the way out of the theater. “Good night, wee ------.”
Why the linguistic excursion? I guess because it’s something — anything — to think about in a movie that’s strictly fluff: a breezy, largely formulaic crime caper serving as a vehicle for the usual boy-cleans-up-his-act story.
The boy in question is Robbie, newly paroled and a father for the first time, and the act in need of cleaning is pretty clear: no money, no job, and a simmering blood feud with some dangerous-looking in-laws. We’re meant to understand that Robbie is lugubrious and troubled — there’s a moving scene in which he is brought to TASC (Talk After Serious Crime) with the family of a victim of his rage — but he mostly comes off as improbably enlightened and self-aware. “I’m just doing it to save face,” he announces grimly of his ongoing rivalry with the neighborhood thugs. “I scare myself sometimes.” Not a whole lot of reforming left to do, it looks like.
There are moments when the movie seems to head for deeper waters, reflecting on a justice system that expects released prisoners to reintegrate into society while leaving them in a structure — no job record means no job, and vice versa — that makes it all but impossible to do so. “Even the Army wouldn’t touch you,” Robbie is told.
But don’t feel too bad (or for that matter, think too hard): our Robbie, wouldn’t you know, is not only exceptionally reflective but also possesses a natural nose for fine scotch, so he rounds up his very own ramshackle brigade of foul-mouthed, enterprising ex-cons to steal some spectacularly expensive whiskey from a distillery in the Highlands. From there, the movie descends into straight slapstick heist: there are sheep, there are kilts, there are dumb policemen, there are the requisite almost-failures, and there are a good number of testicle jokes (there are kilts).
The plot is predictable, and the laughs are dumb, but the whole thing is kept aloft on good spirits and the movie stays watchable thanks to its easy clip and likeable, fantastically-brogued cast. Paul Brannigan does an especially admirable job of sorting out the screenplay’s bungled Robbie into something surprisingly close to a real character. If whiskey is the theme, The Angel’s Share is like Canadian Club out of a plastic handle – sort of cheap and not exactly nuanced, but it somehow still feels pretty good.