Carrying the similarly light and laid back comic tone of his Looking for Eric, Ken Loach heads north to Glasgow, Scotland for Angel’s Share where he finds a group of wayward youth sentenced to community service for assorted crimes small and large. In particular, there is Robbie, a young man whose temper and bad family blood always seem to keep him from straightening up and flying right even for his newly pregnant girlfriend. Luckily for Robbie, his community service supervisor takes an interest in him and shows him a better way through, of all things, the joys of very expensive fine malt whisky. It turns out Robbie has a talented nose for the stuff which comes to the attention of a buyer who works for a shady foreign whisky enthusiast. Combining talents from his old life and his new, Robbie rallies his pals and hatches a plan to get his girlfriend and new son away from Glasgow once and for all.
For a redemption story like this to work, the main characters need to be worth redeeming, but in the early going it doesn’t seem like they are. Robbie and his mates are a group of track suit and sneaker wearing thugs, a bunch of layabouts on the dole who live for booze and petty crimes and violence. Had Loach glossed over Robbie’s nature and then jumped ahead to his miraculous conversion, the whole thing would’ve rung false and it never would’ve worked. But of course Loach has the interest and patience to probe Robbie a little bit. He reveals the complicated circumstances working against Robbie, but even more importantly he has Robbie (and the audience) come to terms with the consequences of his worst actions.
As part of his punishment, Robbie is asked to meet with an innocent young man he’d beaten up. By this time, we’ve gotten to see Robbie’s charms and are starting to accept him as the hero of the story, but now we’re plunged into the darkness of who Robbie has been. It’s a small but powerful and important moment. Somehow seeing what Robbie is capable of at his worst and seeing him confront that honestly and to show genuine regret makes his earnest struggle to do the right thing more palpable, believable and meaningful. By not glossing over Robbie’s past, Loach doesn’t cheapen his story or make it seem false. He’s acknowledging what Robbie has been, but he’s still suggesting such a man deserves a second chance if he’s willing to take it and make the most of it.
As Robbie, Loach took a chance on non-actor Paul Brannigan, a man who knows well the life of the character he wound up playing. It’s a risk that pays off as Brannigan has a natural charm and a believability you might not find with a trained actor. What he might lack in range, he makes up in authenticity. Brannigan knows what makes Robbie tick and it shows.
While it might not be as complex as the whiskies central to its story, Angel’s Share nevertheless goes down easy and leaves you feeling good. It’s true I could’ve lived a long and happy life never hearing The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” again, but the catchy tune admittedly fits the tone and attitude of this modest new comedy perfectly and, in the end, that’s not such a bad thing.
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