Review: The Angels' Share
The angels' share is the percentage of a cask of whiskey lost to evaporation during its years of maturation, and a fitting title for Ken Loach’s 23rd theatrical feature: a lovely if slight comedy that moves like a breath, always threatening to dissolve into thin air but somehow continuing to demand our attention. With this shaggy-dog tale of four petty Glaswegian criminals and their improbably successful scheme to steal the world’s most valuable whiskey, Loach turns naïveté into a sort of moral philosophy.
Loach does not ignore the vices of lower-class urban life, but for the most part he attributes them either to causes outside the individual’s control (family feuds, blood ties, environmental pressures) or to faceless thugs without enough personality to truly earn our blame. His heroes are victims of environment and circumstance, but essentially good; they are kind, likeable, and, perhaps as a result, a little empty inside. They saunter through fields in backwards kilts, steal compulsively, make scatological cracks, and generally goof off. Though Loach might occasionally poke fun at their ignorance (one of them hasn’t heard of the Mona Lisa), he also gives them a sort of dignity, and, more importantly, clears their slates.
Hence the gradual tonal shift from The Angels' Share’s first half, with its beatings, threats, and abuse, to the film’s jollier second half, complete with sunny resolution. There is the odd flicker of tenderness before then, like the way Robbie, the film’s central figure, holds his son for the first time as if he’s afraid the newborn might shatter at a touch. But as the film’s heroes move from the grimy streets of Glasgow to the wide-open Scottish Highlands, the acts of violence and invective peter out completely—as if all along they had been external to the individuals who suffered and at times perpetuated them. The movie brightens, opens up, and to some degree, evaporates.
It’s a pleasant and gentle evaporation, the kind you feel in the closing minutes of a pop song when excitement has given way to comfort, but not yet to boredom. Late in the film an earlier scene comes to mind in which Robbie is forced to confront a young man he once thrashed half to death during a coke binge, or another in which he threatens to put out the eye of a potential assailant and fears for a second that he’s actually going to do it. It’s fair to ask whether any trace of that old inner struggle remains, and if Loach’s heroes still carry some baggage with them other than knapsacks and stolen spirits. Robbie’s complete transformation may feel a little too satisfying, but to Loach’s credit, it never feels false.
Loach’s camera is intimate but never intrusive; it gives us just enough distance from its subjects for comfort, and not much more. That’s also the function of the film’s humor, which is laced with just enough mockery (much of it directed at the pretensions of upper-class whiskey connoisseurship) to keep us at a safe distance, but which handles its targets with such evident care, respect, and even admiration that we rarely feel guilty over chuckling. The joke often seems to be that, for these experts, a sip of whiskey has the same gravity that Robbie might bring to visiting his infant son in the hospital at the risk of incurring yet another savage beating from his gangland enemies. The connoisseur comes off as somewhat ridiculous in the comparison; his pleasures are more modest than he could ever dream. What saves him is that they are also more valuable than many of Robbie’s peers could ever dream: they see his self-importance, but they fail to see that his lighter commitments and quieter joys might still have some weight. There is a place for modest pleasures.