Just four days after the death of Margaret Thatcher, the divisive British prime minister who transformed the United Kingdom during the 1980s, Ken Loach's new film "The Angels' Share" opened last Friday at the the IFC Center in Manhattan's West Village. The timing, although of course coincidental, was instructive: it was Thatcherite policies that created the very socioeconomic conditions that Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty--a long-time collaborator of the English-born director--set out to highlight in their film, which is being distributed here in the U.S. by Sundance Selects.
"The starting point," Loach said in a phone interview this morning from his London office, "was to do something about the million young people in Britain who have no work, no education, no future. We wanted to tell a story about them. But we didn't want to tell a story that was simply about the tragedy of that, which is too predictable. We were looking for a story that was quite upbeat, despite the contrast of the situation that they're in."
One of those "million young people" that Loach describes is Robbie, the protagonist of "The Angels' Share," a young, unemployed Glaswegian who is sentenced at the beginning of the film to community payback as penance for his misdeeds. The judge's leniency--he reminds Robbie that he could have faced jail time--comes in light of the young man's unique circumstances: a brand-new baby born just days after his sentencing.
Outside the courthouse, Robbie's girlfriend Leonine gives him a clear ultimatum: her son's life will be different from theirs, and to be a part of it, Robbie must stay out of trouble with the law.
The problem for Robbie, as "The Angels' Share" quickly demonstrates, is a cyclical vortex of poverty and violence from which he finds himself unable to escape. Robbie is engaged in an enduring feud with Clancy, another local tough, and the two can't keep their hands--or rather their fists--off each other whenever they meet. The grudge is immanent and inescapable, Robbie tells Leonine: His father fought Clancy's father, and as fathers once did, so must sons do now.
The inevitability of violence for a man in Robbie's position is deftly portrayed in Loach's film--the bruises and the blood feel real, and we yearn for Robbie to break the cycle into which he was born. But this grim world of urban poverty occupies only the first act of "The Angels' Share," and the place that the narrative--and the characters--journey into as the film progresses turns it into a delightful and light-hearted buddy/heist comedy by its conclusion.
The buddies are Mo, Rhino and Albert, Robbie's fellow miscreants-in-reformation; the heist comes after a trip the four make with Harry, the kindly supervisor of their community service program, to Edinburgh for a whiskey tasting.
It turns out that a cask of rare whiskey from a long-closed distillery has been found and is set to be auctioned for something to tune of 1 million pounds. Robbie hatches a plan for the group to trek into the highlands, attend the auction and spirit away some of the spirit to sell later--all without anyone noticing.
One of the most remarkable achievements of "The Angels' Share" is that it manages to feel authentic throughout while navigating between the markedly distinct tone of the first act in Glasgow and the final act in the Scottish highlands. By introducing the audience to Robbie when he is at his lowest--we meet him at his sentencing hearing--Loach forges a bond between us and Robbie that proves impressively durable throughout the film.
And Robbie is no ordinary protagonist: he is undeniably guilty of quite serious crimes. In one brutal flashback, we watch as Robbie, high on cocaine, attacks a young man on the street simply for coming too close to him as the man pulls his car into a parking space. During the attack, Robbie blinds the man in one of his eyes.
But by the time he has made it to the distillery in Dornoch Firth where the valuable whiskey will be auctioned off, it's difficult not to root for Robbie as the heist ultimately goes down. At the same time, though, it's impossible to forget that if Robbie and his friends are caught, the consequences for them will be very grave, and for Robbie would almost certainly mean imprisonment and the loss of his family.
That the character arcs and circumstances are believable and affecting throughout "The Angels' Share" is a testament to Loach's dextrous direction. "It's quite risky to show the main character in such a bad light early on," the director admits. But he was drawn to the idea of portraying a young man with a violent past at a crossroads when he could change his life into something very different.
There is a moment in "The Angels' Share," during the heist, when--SPOILER alert--Robbie drops a bottle's worth of ordinary whiskey into the priceless cask to replace the valuable liquid he's siphoned out of it. It's hard not to feel just a twinge of sadness for the dilution of something so precious and rare. But in the end, is that preciousness anything more than the arbitrary assignment of value based on societal expectation? If a couple of whiskey are all it takes to save a young man's life, that's a price worth paying, indeed.