Ken Loach is back in the territory of the lighter, more prankish realism he explored in 2009’s Looking for Eric with his latest film, The Angels’ Share. It finds Loach and his scriptwriter Paul Laverty in Glasgow for a larky crime caper about unemployment and opportunity.
It’s a film that begins with a grimace on its face and ends up wearing a strained smile. While the hero of Looking For Eric was a likeable, depressed postie in need of a hug and a kick up the backside, here we’re presented with a more difficult, conflicted character. Robbie (Paul Brannigan) is a young lad who’s done a stretch in jail for a nasty assault – which we see in flashback – and, after another fight, narrowly avoids more time in prison by agreeing to do 300 hours of community service. This coincides with the birth of his first child, and Robbie is determined to straighten out his life and settle down with his girlfriend.
Loach and Laverty suggest extreme social pressures are the underlying causes of the mess in which Robbie, and the three others serving community sentences with him, find themselves: poverty, lack of jobs and a cycle of macho violence and easy crime. But while other Loach films have focused on the realities of such lives, this one does so to a more limited extent, allowing upbeat storytelling to transport its characters to another, hopefully better place – sprinkling a little fantasy over the realism as it goes.
Robbie and his pals follow their noses and an avuncular community service leader, Harry (John Henshaw), to a whisky distillery in the Highlands where they spy an opportunity to siphon off some super-expensive, super-rare tipple and sell it to a no-questions-asked buyer, Thaddeus (Roger Allam).
And so we move from a world of court cases, dust-ups in stairwells, street chases and knife fights to a different universe of jokey neds in kilts and rarefied folk discussing single malts. It’s a jarring shift, and this isn’t the most evenly paced or tightly focused of Loach films at the best of the times. Some of the peripheral characters, presumably non-actors, such as a guide at a distillery and a fruity whisky expert, are distracting, and there are fewer good jokes than there should be (although an accusation from Henshaw, "You Philippine!" – he means Philistine – is a great moment). That said, there’s a spiky camaraderie between the four young leads and a hands-over-the-eyes moment when someone downs a pint of spit.
Loach and Laverty never fully resolve the yin and yang of The Angels’ Share: the blood and the banter. But it’s still rewarding to see these filmmakers exploring a different tone with their usual compassion and eye for youthful characters still in place.