Since the 1960s, director Ken Loach has been creating realist cinema about social ills and with a generally socialist point of view. From Kes to The Wind That Shakes the Barley, he has dug into the lives of the lower class and the way it is dominated, in ways both overt and invisible, by a world that favors those with money and privilege. His newest film, The Angels’ Share, begins in much the same way but over time succumbs to familiar plot machinations.
As the movie opens, we see a succession of people being sentenced to community service for crimes that run the gamut from public drunkenness to theft to assault. The latter crime was committed by a young man named Robbie (Paul Brannigan), who narrowly avoids incarceration due to the judge’s sympathy for Robbie’s impeding fatherhood. As the group of petty criminals serve out their punishments by performing tasks like repainting a youth center or cleaning graffiti off of gravestones, four of them – Robbie, Albert (Gary Maitland), Mo (Jasmine Riggins) and Rhino (William Ruane) – begin to form a friendship. Robbie also bonds with their supervisor, Harry (John Henshaw).
Those early scenes, such as Albert’s drunken near-miss with a commuter train (it can’t be stressed enough how perfectly hilarious Maitland is in the role), provide a level of real-world, humanistic levity that may not have been absent from Loach’s earlier work but for which he is certainly not known. The humor is a contrast – and a well-balanced one – to the harrowing verisimilitude of Robbie’s life and the tragically limited, inescapably violent options into which he was born.
Deftly employed as the comedy is, Loach displays the opposite of a light touch when it comes to the film’s score. The jaunty but indistinct music sounds like it was written by a computer program, and not one of those cool, smart, Skynet ones either. Its chuggy, watered-down momentum is insultingly instructive, always letting you know how to feel about the scene you’re watching or are about to watch. Sadly, this lack of imagination proves to be a clue as to where the movie is headed.
Having no home of his own and with his nose recently bloodied by his girlfriend’s father, Robbie is invited to clean himself up at Harry’s place. There, in celebration of Robbie’s son being born, Harry opens a very good, 32 year old bottle of whisky. Robbie’s never tried whisky before but he soon develops a taste for it and an interest in the culture and history of the drink. The egalitarianism of a kid from Robbie’s situation appreciating something generally isolated to the rarified realm of luxury is touching but the film quickly steps over the line with the implication that Robbie has some sort of superhuman olfactory senses and taste buds, making him an ideal expert on spirits.
From there, it’s basically downhill. Robbie’s unlikely and implausible gift is only the first of the many movie-ish contrivances that make up the film’s second half, with the group of friends – a known band of screw-ups – occasionally becoming supremely capable when the plot requires it. The Angels’ Share, at its halfway point, is shaping up to be an inspiring, political tale of a young man living a blighted life in a blighted neighborhood finding the confidence to assert himself and his place in the same world as the moneyed. Where it winds up, though, is as a slight and predictable heartwarmer presented in far too neat a package for Loach’s sensibilities.