Ken Loach has long oscillated between crafting leftist historiographies and kitchen-sink comedies, all defined by the working class’s struggle against government corruption and social inequality. Recently, the British filmmaker has shown a predilection for overt ideological preachiness, even more so than in his early, grittier works. Perhaps mercifully, his latest film, The Angels’ Share, a breezy scribble about lowlife redemption and drunken buffoonery, isn’t so much heavy-handed as it is charmingly weightless.
In the film’s opening montage, a series of scraggly defendants separately stand before a magistrate, awaiting sentencing for crimes like public drunkenness, brawling, and petty larceny. Speeches from the defense and prosecution paint different backstories, calling into question whether or not each is a scoundrel or merely misunderstood. Only time will tell, and Loach has a fun time playing with the moral ambiguity on display, especially in regard to the volatile hooligan Robbie (Paul Brannigan), who’s incarcerated for the latest in a long line of fistfights. As the camera lingers on each of the defendants’ faces, they squirm and fidget, genuinely concerned about the future while their crimes are recounted in droll verbal fashion by the snooty court. Not only does this prologue establish the sometimes hilarious, sometimes dark actions of the lead players, it proves that Loach can express his interest in social/class juxtapositions by way of a lively cinematic style.
Unfortunately, The Angels’ Share quickly devolves into ho-hum convention. It doesn’t take long for Robbie and the other miscreants to meet-cute during a court-mandated work program that has them picking up trash and painting over graffiti. They mindlessly band together over a mutual appreciation for whisky drinking and production after their group leader, Harry (John Henshaw), leads an impromptu field trip to a local distillery. Here, Loach focuses more on hapless friendships rather than the social ills that seem to be keeping the characters down. Early plot threads like Robbie’s conflict with his pregnant girlfriend’s father and a rolling feud with another Glasgow family are thrown by the wayside in favor of chill sessions between him and his newfound sipping buddies. Eventually, an absolutely asinine heist subplot leads Robbie and his posse into a daring plot to steal priceless whisky from an age-old casket.
Ideologically, the film has little on its mind. Robbie and his ilk are simple entrepreneurs looking to rise out of the economic cellar by way of an Ocean’s Eleven-grade scheme. Focusing on the capitalistic tendencies of cash-strapped characters is a strange fit for the left-leaning Loach, and as a result the final act feels forced when the film becomes a mainstream rags-to-riches fairy tale. Strangely, even more so than with his previous comedy, Looking for Eric, Loach seems to be moving toward a more Hawksian outlook regarding the overlap between professional and personal relationships. This would be a good thing if Loach’s characters actually felt strongly about the procedures of a given tradecraft. Instead, The Angels’ Share is like some hybrid born from the loins of Sideways and The Full Monty, reveling in a brand of cheeky camaraderie that feels ultimately cheap, one that simply cherishes a dimwitted euphoric passion for sipping booze and talking shit.