The Angels’ Share is a thoroughly satisfying film, although its first half is noticeably different from its second half. When it begins, it’s a compelling human drama – the story of a wayward young man torn between doing right by his newborn son and perpetuating his long-standing feud with the son of the man his father feuded with. By the time it ends, it has already transitioned into a cleverly plotted heist movie, one that’s much lighter in tone and ends on a very sweet note. This part of the film works, but in a completely different way; the filmmakers essentially set aside the more realistic aspects of the first part and go for pure entertainment. Knowing this, I now understand why it won the Jury Prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival but lost the Palme d’Or to Michael Haneke’s Amour.
Taking place in Scotland, the central character is Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a troubled young man with a fairly extensive criminal record. His acts of violence culminated with the beating of a random motorist trying to park his car; although the victim survived, he permanently lost the sight in one of his eyes. Because Robbie was high on cocaine at the time, and because the court is aware that his formative years were tarnished by an abusive father, he manages to avoid prison and is sentenced to hours of community service. For his girlfriend, Leonie (Siobhan Reilly), this comes as a huge relief, seeing as she’s pregnant with their first child. But she’s also wary, for she knows about Robbie’s feud, and she’s desperate for the legacy of violence to end. Leonie’s father is so convinced of Robbie’s worthlessness that he will have him beaten in one scene and then offer to have him permanently sent to London to keep him away from his daughter and grandchild.
Robbie and Leonie’s son, Luke, enters the world, and Robbie swears on both their lives that he will leave his past behind him. But how can he do this when his criminal record, coupled with a scar on his face, prevents him from securing a job, to say nothing of the fact that most of Glasgow has written him off as a no-good thug? Here enters a supervisor named Harry (John Henshaw), who becomes Robbie’s mentor; he introduces Robbie to the world of fine whisky, first as a way to celebrate Luke’s birth, second as a reward for good behavior. When Robbie and his colorful work team go with Harry to a distillery in Edinburgh, Robbie discovers he has a nose for whisky. He soon thereafter is introduced to a whisky collector named Thaddeus (Roger Allam) and is made aware of a cask of priceless whisky, which will soon be up for auction.
One member of Robbie’s work team, an incurable kleptomaniac named Mo (Jasmin Riggins), steals documents that reveal the location of the cask. And so the wheels are set in motion for a comedic caper. It obviously wouldn’t be practical for Robbie to steal the entire cask. He has something much subtler in mind. However, should all go according to plan, the end result will be the same; he will come in a substantial amount of money, enough to escape the criminal underbelly of Glasgow with his girlfriend and son and start a new life. As to whether or not all does go according to plan, that’s something you’re just going to have to see for yourselves. What I can say is that the caper, fanciful though it may be, is surprisingly well-paced. At times, it’s even quite funny.
I still find myself wondering about the change in tone, given director Ken Loach’s affinity for social realist stories. The first half of the film goes in that direction, but the second half is much more lighthearted. There’s nothing wrong with either approach. In fact, I would wager most audiences, myself included, would prefer the second approach to the first, since one of the primary reasons we go to the movies is to temporarily free ourselves from the harsh realities of life. Nevertheless, I have to question the wisdom of taking both approaches in the same film. If you’re not prepared for it, the shift in tone might be too jarring. Those looking for hard-edged naturalism will be let down by the ending, while those looking for escapism might not stay long enough to see how it ends.
In case you’re wondering about the film’s title, it refers to the 2% of whisky that evaporates as it ages in its cask. This is explained by a tour guide at the same distillery where Robbie’s olfactory abilities are discovered. It could also have a figurative meeting; Robbie is no angel, but he’s also not a bad man, and at this stage of his life, he has finally earned the right to a fair share. Perhaps his work team has also. After all, you can only be written off for so long before you start to believe it. They’re far from perfect people – in fact, they can be downright crude – but there’s no reason they have to pay for their mistakes for the rest of their lives. The Angels’ Share may be atmospherically inconsistent, but it has good characters, it tells an engaging story, and it builds to a very crowd-pleasing conclusion.
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