For years proletarian filmmaker Ken Loach has been one of the most reliable downers in British cinema, reminding us time and again that the rich get richer and the poor get exploited (unless they can figure out how to exploit someone else). But in his mid-70s Loach has begun to try his hand at comedy, with Looking for Eric (2009) and now this 2012 feature. Eric was an admirable attempt but a failure nonetheless, mainly because its wackier moments seemed so incongruous given the drab Manchester milieu and down-and-out characters. This time, however, Loach and his longtime screenwriter, Paul Laverty, have found a better balance, anchoring the story in the hard realities of working-class Glasgow but allowing for some wacky character moments and an unexpectedly happy ending.
Like many a Loach protagonist, the main character in The Angels' Share is trapped by his environment and his own rage. Robbie (Paul Brannigan) faces a prison term for assault and battery after pummeling a local tough; the two young men have been feuding for years, carrying on a conflict that began with their respective fathers. The magistrate in the case, noting that Robbie is about to become a father, gives him a relatively light sentence—300 hours of community service—but Robbie's nemesis is spoiling for a rematch that will almost certainly bring Robbie the prison term he's been spared this time. "Even if you wanted to change, they're not gonna let you," insists his girlfriend's father, offering Robbie some money to get out of town.
When Harry (John Henshaw), the kindhearted older man supervising Robbie's work crew, brings Robbie to his flat and offers him his first drink of whiskey to celebrate the birth of his son, you expect disaster—the last thing Robbie needs is a taste for hard liquor. But Loach and Laverty have something else in mind: accompanying Harry to a whiskey- tasting event in Edinburgh, Robbie and three of his fellow convicts learn about a barrel of scotch that's coming up for auction and likely to fetch a million pounds, and Robbie hatches a plot to infiltrate the distillery, siphon off a few bottles, and sell them on the black market. The heist comedy is nicely underplayed, though thematically it's fairly consistent with the rest of Loach's work, arguing that the only way to triumph over the thieving rich is to beat them at their own game.