Ken Loach's The Angels' Share gets underway as a hard-hitting squint at the unemployed of Glasgow before rather perversely turning into an uplifting crime caper with a Disneyesque finale. But maybe, just maybe, a little Walt is what the have-nots are crying out for right now.
Loach, who has been zeroing in on the working class for over 45 years (Poor Cow (1967); Riff-Raff (1991)), and his longtime screenwriter Paul Laverty (The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006)) have concocted a group of societal misfits who've all wound up in court and sentenced to community service.
One, Albert (Gary Maitland), is a dull-witted hard drinker who's been arrested for plummeting onto some train tracks; another, kleptomaniac Mo (Jasmine Riggins), has filched a macaw; and a third, Rhino (William Ruane), has continuously affronted public statuary, sometimes with urine. But our main Cinderella/hero here is Robbie (Paul Brannigan).
With a scar down one cheek and a temper as virulent as a tsunami on uppers, Robbie is at first an odd, antipathetic choice for a hero. He's just out of prison; while coked up, Robbie had bashed in an innocent young man's head, blinding him in one eye and basically destroying his life. So what does this culprit's freedom portend? Robbie has gotten his girlfriend pregnant, he has no job or future prospects, and now he's disfigured some roughnecks. No wonder half of Scotland seemingly wants to pummel him into Hades.
But the argument, or at least his lawyer's take on the matter, is that becoming a father will overhaul the sadistic lad, who comes from a long line of sadistic lads, and she's on to something. If only someone would give Robbie a chance or at least a fairy godmother. Get your pumpkins ready.
The fairy godmother turns out to be the heavyset, warmhearted Harry (John Henshaw), who's a supervisor on the community service. Well, Harry is soon mothering the above quartet as they paint schools, sweep cemeteries, and so forth, but his real gift is turning his wards on to the majesty of quality whiskey. Lo and behold, Robbie has a gifted nose that true zealots of the liquor lionize. So how can a set of sensitive nostrils salvage four lives?
Scent, fine acting, plus superb cinematography by Robbie Ryan (Wuthering Heights (2012)) carry you through this award winner at Cannes. However, in the end, you can't help but feel you've been cheated out of a truly devastating drama a la The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) by folks in search of something more commercially palatable and, consequently, less plausible. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Queer Theatre" and "Gay and Lesbian Identity in Literature" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, the New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writing group FlashPoint.