“The Angels’ Share” is a comic story about drunkenness and brutality, petty crime and class prejudice, and, more than anything, true friendship and genuine salvation.
It is a wonderful tale, and comes with the Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize as a stamp of approval.
That it also is filled with the foulest language you may ever hear in a film is part of this little movie’s magic. And just in case you can’t understand the Scottish-accented obscenities, there are subtitles.
Director Ken Loach and his frequent partner in film, screenwriter Paul Laverty (“The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” “Looking for Eric”), are not using vulgarity for shock value or for fake humor. They are staying true to the milieu of their can’t-catch-a-break characters, a group of losers trying to scratch out, well, not even a living – no one will hire them – but just an existence in a little corner of Scotland.
The film opens with a seriously soused fellow swaying at a train stop while increasingly hilarious and profane orders bark from a loudspeaker warning him to step back from the tracks, then after he falls, to get off the tracks before he gets killed. Perturbed, he does climb out, with at least two or three seconds to spare before the train rushes through.
We next see him in court, as another more judicial voice pronounces sentence of community service and points out, “Your profound stupidity is matched only by your good fortune.”
Also in court are a few other trouble-prone souls, among them Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a young man accused of beating three fellows who attacked him so severely they could be maimed for life. Unexpectedly, he also gets a reprieve of community service, since he didn’t start the fight and his girlfriend Leonie (Siobhan Reilly) is soon to have their baby.
The unexpected element in all this is Big Harry (John Henshaw, a fixture in good British productions), the man who oversees the probationers on their community projects. Harry’s heart is the biggest thing about him, and he treats the crew like workers, not convicts.
Robbie particularly responds to this unexpected kindness and respect. After Leonie has their son, he celebrates with Harry and vows the boy will have a better life than he has had.
And despite the scar on his face and the thugs who want to kill him, and despite Robbie’s own history of unprovoked violence, it’s clear he means it.
Loach turns the story so smoothly it feels effortless, as Harry takes Robbie under his wing and teaches him about the one thing he knows really well – Scottish whiskey. The color. The nose. All the hints of flavor, from the sea to the earth to a hint of chocolate.
The idea that there can be art in something so simple is a revelation to Robbie, and when Harry takes the whole crew on a field trip to his holy site – a distillery – it seals the deal for the rest of the bunch as well.
While in the distillery, the lovely young tour guide explains the finer points of making whiskey, including the way time enriches it while also taking something away.
While in the keg, 2 percent of the whiskey “is lost every year into the air,” she says. They call it “the angels’ share.”
The accepted wisdom that barreled whiskey can simply disappear is key to the second, more cerebral half of the film – a heist plot so ridiculous, lucrative and practically victimless that it is a joy to behold.
One of the many pleasures of “The Angels’ Share” is that it is at once smart and completely sympathetic to those who are not.
Screenwriter Laverty does not waste a word – even the obscene ones – in making his characters come alive. Born in India to Scottish and Irish parents, according to his bio, he earned a philosophy degree in Rome and a law degree in Scotland before working for human rights in Nicaragua and then writing movies. Even so, he can create a sincere and funny scene in which a sad sack from Glasgow goes to Edinburgh for the first time and asks his friends in wonder what that thing is, the big (expletive; maybe two) on the hill?
Edinburgh Castle, they tell him, the most famous landmark in all of Scotland. “Is there no shortbread in your house?” Harry admonishes. “Next time look at the tin!”
All the more amazing, then, that they later find themselves at a whiskey auction suited only for millionaires and billionaires, for whom a £100,000 bottle of booze would be a mere drop, and come out smiling.
The movie’s ads boast that “The Angels’ Share” has “lots of spirit,” and that is true enough.
The other line is “Enjoy responsibly.” Enjoy, indeed.
The Angels’ Share
Three and a half stars
Starring: Paul Brannigan, John Henshaw, Siobhan Reilly
Director: Ken Loach
Running time: 101 minutes
Rating: Not rated, but R equivalent for pervasive use of casual obscenities and some violence.
The Lowdown: A young minor criminal in Glasgow gets a second chance at life with the help of a kindhearted probation overseer, a rare cask of whiskey and an even more rare bit of luck. In accented English with subtitles.