“The Angels’ Share” opens Friday at Sundance. Not rated, 1:46, three stars out of four.
We think we’re in familiar Ken Loach territory from the outset of “The Angels’ Share.” From his 1970 debut “Kes” onward, Loach has excelled in showing the gritty truths of life in working-class England, favoring realism over sentimentality. But Loach’s new film, written by his longtime collaborator Paul Laverty (“The Wind That Shakes the Barley”), has some surprises up its sleeve.
“The Angels’ Share” starts in a courtroom, where we see a succession of petty criminals getting their sentences for shoplifting, public drunkenness and the like. The worst of them seems to be Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a jug-eared young man with a nasty scar on his face. We hear about his violent crimes, including a brutal beating during a traffic altercation, and figure he’s the worst of the bunch. He avoids incarceration by the skin of his teeth, sentenced to community service.
But then Loach and Laverty show us Robbie’s life; he’d like to go straight, especially for the sake of his pregnant girlfriend (Siobhan Reilly), but is involved in a violent feud with other locals that he can’t avoid. He seems destined to loop right back around to that courthouse, only this time to be sentenced to prison.
The film’s view of the social underpinnings of crime is complex, and doesn’t offer any easy answers or opinions about Robbie. Just when we’ve grudgingly warmed to him, Loach flashes back to the traffic beating that got him arrested, and it’s horrible to watch. Robbie is forced to meet the victim of his crime, psychologically as well as physically damaged, and he weeps, vowing never to harm another person again. But good intentions only get you so far.
But Robbie finds an unlikely angel in his case worker Harry (John Henshaw), a big-hearted man who seems to see his job less as parole officer and more as camp counselor. He drives Robbie and the other parolees around town to do odd jobs for the city. At the end of the day, like a little field trip, he takes them to a local distillery.
Robbie has never tried whisky before, but he’s smitten with the romance around the history of Scottish distilling, and it turns out he has a natural nose for discerning the different varieties of whisky. He’s also very intrigued by a rare cask of whisky, the Malt Mill, which is scheduled to be auctioned off for a million pounds or more. That kind of money could help a young man truly start a new life.
And it’s here that “Angels Share” reveals its big surprise to the audience — it’s a caper film. Robbie and his band of delightful deliquents plot to steal the whisky right out of the cask and sell it on the side to a broker (Roger Allam). It’s an interesting turn for the film, which becomes much more of a lark in the second half, funnier and somewhat suspenseful, as we wonder if the crew can pull off such a daring liquid heist. Loach comes as close to hitting Hollywood movie beats as he ever has — if you had told me I’d see a Ken Loach film where the heroes speed across the Scottish countryside as the Proclaimers’ jaunty “500 Miles” plays on the soundtrack, I’d say you were nuts. But it happens here (twice), and it works, in large part because Loach has laid a foundation of social realism underneath the hijinks.
Whether Robbie pulls off his caper should be left for the audience to discover. But Loach’s great cinematic switcheroo goes off almost without a hitch.