Zimbio Review - 'The Angels' Share' and the Greatest Whiskey Heist of All-Time

(Sundance Selects)
The Bottom Line
Should you see it?

A Ken Loach film without a message, focused more on fun and friendship, is worthy of note.
With stories filled with social and political commentary, Ken Loach has never missed a chance to say something important. It's surprising then his latest film, The Angels' Share, doesn't have a whole lot to say and is, instead, a heartwarming tale of redemption and friendship in modern Scotland. Using his signature authentic style, Loach tells a common tale about a young man transformed from a life of crime by a woman's love and his admirable quest to not disappoint her.

First-time actor Paul Brannigan plays Robbie, a lost soul awaiting sentencing for a brutal assault. Luckily, the judge sees potential in him and dishes out hundreds of community service hours instead of jailtime. HIs pregnant girlfriend, Leonie (Siobhan Reilly), is relieved but tells him she's leaving him if she ever has to sit in a courtroom again. Given a second chance, Robbie doesn't want to screw it up. He meets Harry (John Henshaw) on his first day of service and they strike up an unlikely friendship. Harry becomes a kind of father figure, giving him his first taste of whiskey and taking Robbie and the rest of the group to a distillery as a reward for good behavior.

It's there Robbie finds he has a sharp palate and he soon travels with Harry again to a whiskey tasting session in Edinburgh. He impresses everyone once more by identifying a vintage malt and also learns of a priceless cask, the "Malt Mill," which will be auctioned soon to the highest bidder. Seizing the opportunity, Robbie concocts a plan to siphon some of the whiskey and sell it to a collector he met. "The angels' share" we learn is the small percentage of each cask that's lost over time to evaporation. Robbie knows a few bottles won't be missed.

Loach's film, from a script by Paul Laverty, isn't without its faults. It plods along at times and the music is a bit too on the nose, featuring The Proclaimers. Robbie's redemption also has few hurdles. Leonie's uncles pound on him early in the film with a warning to stay away from their neice and Robbie's newborn son. He's even offered 5000 pounds to move away and sever all ties, something Robbie contemplates in a moment of weakness. But, the threat of more violence from Leonie's family diappears quickly and a scene late in the film, where Robbie is followed to his new house, is forgotten. By the end of the movie, the subplot with the uncles seems like a distant memory.

However, that's the one hole in an otherwise original and satisfying script. The whiskey tasting and pontificating recalls Sideways, but The Angels' Share has a credibility Alexander Payne's movie lacked. Scotsmen drinking Scotch whiskey seems a natural fit. It's also fun to see Robbie find his voice and confidence once he's told he's good at something. There's truth to a redemption story when the origin is rooted in something real. For some people, all they need is to have trust instilled in them, to discover a hidden talent they never realized.

What's most compelling about The Angels' Share is the real-life corollary between Brannigan and his onscreen character. The actor comes from a broken home and a childhood spent in and out of detention centers, facts he's talked openly about in interviews. His experiences obviously made him a natural fit as Robbie and he impresses, breaking down in one scene when he comes face to face with the boy he assaulted, and handling delicate sequences with Leonie as well as he does the hard-boiled physicality of the violent ones. He's an actor to watch.

Loach leads The Angels' Share, as he always does, by giving the film the naturalistic air and accessibility that's his siganture. He allows the camera to watch the action while remaining invisible and letting the story play out onscreen. The film is story and character-driven and Brannigan plays Robbie with an empathy that gives veracity to his actions. He's a thug, but you never question his devotion to his family or his desire for a better life. He wants it—so then, do we. The star of it all though is the marvelous heist. The ingenious idea to take a little of something that won't be missed and the way Robbie concocts the scheme is simply, like the Malt Mill itself, superb.

Senior Editor at Zimbio. I'll take Johnny Clay, the Rev. Harry Powell, and Annie Savoy. You can have the rest.