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Review: The Angels Share
Robbie, centre, and his pals on the main streets of Glasgow.

PIAF FILM REVIEW

The Angels’ Share (MA15+) 4 stars
Paul Brannigan, John Henshaw, Siobahn Reilly
DIRECTOR KEN LOACH
REVIEWER MARK NAGLAZAS
You’ll like this if you liked Whisky Galore!, Local Hero, the previous films of Ken Loach, especially the comedies, Billy Elliot, This Is England

The name Ken Loach has become so inextricably intertwined with grim British dramas, with unadorned examinations of the plight of those with a shaky foothold on the mainstream society, he’s now an adjective. Kafka-esque, Fellini-esque, Pinter-esque, Loachian.

And when Loach moves offshore he’s not in search of a sunnier clime, as when Trainspotting’s Danny Boyle decamped the UK for Thailand to make The Beach. He brought the same downbeat approach to the Spanish Civil War in Land and Freedom and to the troubles in Ireland with The Wind That Shakes the Barley.

What is overlooked is that Loach has a very assured comic touch. He often laces the grimmer works with ironic laughter to underscore the tragedy or simply to infuse joy and hope into the lives not on the radar of mainstream movies, such as the suicidal postman in Looking for Eric, who under the influence of dope receives guidance from the French soccer legend.

The prolific Loach, who is 75 years young, has made arguably the breeziest and most overtly crowd-pleasing film of his career with The Angels’ Share, a realist drama about a group of Glaswegian losers doing community service which morphs into that most un-Loachian of all genres — the heist movie (think Oceans with kilts).

The centre of the story is a troubled screw-up named Robbie (Paul Brannigan), who narrowly avoids another stretch in jail for grievous bodily harm because his girlfriend (Siobhan Reilly) is eight months pregnant.

Robbie and a group of equally hapless losers are put under the supervision of a middle-aged Mancunian named Harry (John Henshaw), who treats the youngsters humanely and introduces them to his abiding passion, whisky, taking them to visit a distillery and then to a tasting in Edinburgh.

The others in the group treat this exposure to the history and culture of Scotland’s national drink as an occasion for boneheaded jokes. Robbie, on the other hand, reveals himself to have the nose of a connoisseur, capable of distinguishing a single malt from a rare Scotch (he’s the whisky equivalent of Ratatouille’s natural-(born chef Remy). And, being the smartest one in a dim bunch he can also sniff out the sweetest of set-ups — a priceless whisky that is being auctioned at a Highlands distillery ripe for the taking.

The Angels’ Share is about a group of doomed working-class youngsters finding purpose in life through an unlikely interest in Scottish tradition. But it has no sentimentality, neither does it have the redemptive arc that would have been applied if the story had been shot in Hollywood.

Rather, it has the scurrilous quality and lack of sentimentality you associate more with Ealing comedies of the late 1940s and 50s, Billy Wilder, or even Woody Allen (see Small Time Crooks), with Loach mocking the absurd rituals of the whisky connoisseurs and the outrageousness of a vat of ancient malt worth its weight in gold (the film has the subtle bouquet of Loach’s leftish politics).

Loach’s leading man, Brannigan, was not an actor when he was cast, but has channelled his real-life experience of homelessness, crime and time in prison into the character of Robbie, injecting a reality and grit that makes his emergence as a budding star in (the whisky world that much (more believable. It emerges out (of his raw self rather than a (cheesy lightbulb-above-the-head moment.

While Loach drops in a signature scene in which Robbie is forced to meet the victim of his violence — a heartbreaking moment that feels as if it was lifted from a documentary on crime and punishment — the rest of the movie carries its meaning as lightly as the angel’s share — the 2 per cent of whisky that evaporates in the vat.

Robbie and his mates are hardly angelic (Loach, as mentioned, doesn’t sentimentalise his characters) but it does remind us that the overlooked also have souls that can be appreciative of life’s finer things if they get half a chance.

The Angels’ Share is on at the Joondalup Pines from today until Sunday. It then moves to the Somerville for one week.