An amiable comedy about young Glaswegian roughnecks discovering the world of whisky, “The Angels’ Share” finds helmer Ken Loach and long-term screenwriting partner Paul Laverty in better, breezier form than their rebarbative prior effort, “Route Irish.” Set in Laverty’s native Scotland, the locale for some of the duo’s strongest collaborations (“Sweet Sixteen,” “My Name Is Joe”), the pic has a pleasantly scratchy realist look, even if its corny heist plotline could have inspired a 1960s Children’s Film Foundation quota quickie. Although upbeat a la “Looking for Eric,” “Angels” has no heavenly names attached, and so should make only niche coin.
An opening sequence set in the Glasgow Sheriff’s Court introduces the young characters at the pic’s heart, a rogue’s gallery of hooligans whose charges range from criminal damage to shoplifting. Robbie (non-pro Paul Brannigan, whose own bio suggests a life not dissimilar to his character’s) narrowly escapes a jail sentence for assault when he convinces the judge he wants to go straight, especially now that he’s expecting a baby with his partner, Leonie (Siobhan Reilly).
Assigned to community service under the supervision of Harry (John Henshaw), a Mancunian willing to see the best in his clients, Robbie befriends other members of his work detail: bespectacled Albert (Gary Maitland), joker Rhino (William Ruane) and light-fingered femme Mo (newcomer Jasmin Riggins).
Harry takes Robbie under wing when he sees Leonie’s family members mistreating the young man, whom they despise. Harry has an amateur connoisseur’s passion for whisky, and tries to turn the young people on to their local heritage by taking them to visit a distillery. Robbie turns out to have a remarkable olfactory gift and proves surprisingly adept at identifying different varieties of whisky, making him the sort of natural proletarian epicure who would particularly appeal to Loach’s considerable following in France, where much of the pic’s production coin was raised.
Financial desperation, unexpected opportunity and raw criminal cunning lead the four youngsters to hatch plans to filch some rare malt whisky that’s about to go up for auction at another Highland distillery, a heist for which they don kilts in order to look more credible as the alleged “‘Carntyne Malt Whisky Club.” (Pic’s title refers to the tiny percentage of whisky that naturally evaporates in a cask over time.)
This being a Loach-Laverty movie, however chipper, auds aren’t allowed to walk away without a thinly disguised lecture, as Robbie’s storyline serves as a treatise on how poverty ravages the soul and prejudice against the dispossessed only leads to an endless cycle of crime. On this score, the pic’s most powerful scene is one in which Robbie is forced to meet with one of his victims in an unforgiving strip-lit room; as is so often the case with Loach, the naturalistic, semi-improvised perfs utterly convince that these people have actually lived through such tragedies.
The discovery in a cast studded with Loach regulars, Brannigan repays with interest the director’s risk in casting him as the lead, submitting a nuanced, charismatic perf that holds sympathy throughout. It’s not as demanding a role as Martin Compston had in “Sweet Sixteen,” and Brannigan doesn’t quite achieve the same palpable, this-kid’s-going-somewhere star quality; nevertheless, with his roguishly scarred face and iridescent, long-lashed eyes, Brannigan is very watchable. There’s also fizzy chemistry between him and his young cohorts, who lend dryly timed comic support, and the redoubtable Henshaw.
These virtues balance out the pic’s vices, which include a faint but detectable sentimentality that, like the smell of peat and honey, often wafts through Laverty and Loach’s work. The lush Highland locations, which contrast so well with Glasgow’s grim, gray projects — and eerily gothic Necropolis cemetery, glimpsed in a key scene — are certainly picturesque, but traffic a bit too much in Scottish cliche. Likewise, laying the Proclaimers’ pop anthem “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” over a traveling montage is about as cringe-worthy as using “Danny Boy” in an Irish-set film.
Tech credits feature typically solid but unremarkable work from a roster of Loach’s usual collaborators, including editor Jonathan Morris, production designer Fergus Clegg and composer George Fenton. The only new name onboard is lenser Robbie Ryan, best known for his work with Andrea Arnold; the nimble way his camera dances around the characters, holding them close, is highly similar in feel to the lensing of Loach’s longtime d.p. Barry Ackroyd.