The latest film from firebrand social realist Ken Loach, the story of a rare whiskey heist pulled off by a gang of Glaswegian castoffs, shows the director mellowing with age, while retaining his essential bite.
Mr. Loach tapped first-time actor Paul Brannigan, himself the product of Glasgow’s drug-addled underclass, to play Robbie, a violent, short-tempered repeat offender who is struggling to generate the escape velocity necessary to make a fresh start in life. Robbie’s stuck in a generations-long feud with a rival neighborhood family that occasionally flares up with serious violence. He’s got a scar that runs the length of one cheek that hinders him in efforts to get a legit job. And he’s got a massive chip on his shoulder that would make him unemployable, even if he wasn’t a wayward product of the streets.
A stint doing court-ordered community service precipitates a change in his life, though one that is entirely unexpected. His supervisor Harry (John Henshaw) takes pity on him after he’s beaten to a pulp by his girlfriend’s gangster uncles when he tries to visit her in the hospital during childbirth. Robbie gets the news of the birth of his son via text message while staying at Harry’s apartment, and the older man decides to toast the new arrival with a dram of very old single malt whisky.
While Robbie doesn’t care for the taste at first, the experience unlocks a hidden talent — an expert palate that is sensitive to tiny variations in flavor. When he puts this talent to use in a public tasting, he attracts the attention of Thaddeus (Roger Allam), a rare whiskey broker who may or may not hold the key to Robbie’s future.
Mr. Loach pulls a few punches when depicting the shabby, rundown existence lived by Robbie and his friends from community service. Scenes of blight that might be played up for their grimness are given a lightly comic treatment — but the teasing never gives way to outright disrespect. Robbie’s violent past isn’t given short shrift — in a moving scene he’s confronted by a boy he injured in a pointless drug-fueled assault a few years earlier. He’s profoundly shaken by the lingering effects of his own violence and by the contempt shown to him by the boy’s family, and he vows to change his ways for the sake of his infant son.
Of course, this Robbie can’t entirely turn his back on the thug life. To raise the money for his escape, he comes up with a plan to rob a distillery of a few bottles of extremely rare and valuable whiskey about to go up for auction. (The title “The Angels’ Share” refers to the 2 percent of the spirit that is lost in the distilling process to evaporation.) For an occasionally breezy comedy, the heist generates a lot of tension, which doesn’t die down until near the movie’s end.
The English-language dialogue is all subtitled to avoid confusion with the characters’ thick Scottish accents. It’s largely unnecessary, and a bit of a distraction. But that might be my only quibble with this unexpectedly sweet and crowd-pleasing comedy.
TITLE: “The Angels’ Share”
CREDITS: Directed by Ken Loach, written by Paul Laverty
RATING: Not rated; punctuated by near-constant profanity, spoken in thick Scottish accents
RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS