Ken Loach has long been one of cinema’s greatest humanists, taking an unblinking look at the lives of working class Britons with unsurpassed warmth and dignity. For a long time, this view has been directed at the cause of raising awareness for social issues from abortion (1971’s Family Life) to homelessness (Cathy Come Home, made for BBC Television in 1966), and workers’ rights.
Of late, though, Loach has found a way to keep the focus on these hardscrabble citizens and their struggles at the service of more straightforward genre pictures. He still leans towards using non-actors and true-to-life sets and dialogue, but the conventions of modern cinema are starting to mold his narrative approach. Sometimes the results are as striking as anything he’s ever done — his drama about the early days of the IRA, The Winds That Shakes The Barley, and his 2002 work, Sweet Sixteen, about a young man who takes to a life of crime to try and give his mother a better life, are some of the best films of the new millennium. But just as often, Loach can’t find the center, lending his work an unsteady feel, which unfortunately turns out to be the case with The Angels’ Share.
Much of the film’s wobbliness can be attributed to its radical shifts in tone and spirit. It begins with a drunken man in a train station who falls on the tracks, narrowly avoiding being hit by an oncoming express. It’s a hit of comedy that then gives way to a somber run of folks getting handed down community service sentences by a judge, including the drunk. The film finally settles on Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a young Glaswegian with a violent past given one final chance thanks to his pregnant girlfriend and his visible regrets.
Loach then veers between moods, giving viewers a story of redemption, a buddy comedy, a somewhat dark look at a young man trying to outrun his past, and then, out of nowhere, a heist. What sends Robbie on the righteous path is learning to love the taste of Irish whiskey. The man in charge of the young offenders (John Henshaw) helps him to appreciate it, taking Robbie and his buddies on jaunts to distilleries and tastings. Word comes down that an especially rare cask is coming up for auction, the Robbie and three of his mates hatch a plan to abscond with some of it so as to sell it off to a somewhat shady enthusiast (Roger Allam).
In the hands of most other directors, this whole affair would have been played with as much melodrama and unnecessary tension as they could ratchet into it. But true to his roots as a theater director and his long history behind the camera, Loach’s story unfolds quietly and, at times, quaintly.
Still, there’s something off about the whole affair. Loach’s unflinching gaze feels ill-used for a film as stuffed with plot and incident as he portrays here. He’s aided at every turn by his actors &mdash particularly Brannigan — who bring to the table the humble sincerity that only untrained thespians possess. You cheer on Robbie’s efforts to find a life outside of the hand-to-mouth existence he has had up until the film opens, but that’s only because Brannigan himself makes that possible. Loach just lets the whole spill forth without intrusion.