Standing proudly as the only British film considered for the coveted Palme d’Or at this year’s 65th Cannes Film Festival, Ken Loach’s welcome return to screens, The Angels’ Share (2012), sees the veteran director in a playful mood. Alongside regular screenwriter Paul Laverty, Loach has constructed an enjoyable Scottish dramedy that skilfully brings together the nation’s most renowned tropes – namely whisky, kilts, Iron Bru and working class strife.
Frantically trying to put his violent past behind him is Robbie (a heartfelt turn by relative unknown Paul Brannigan), a young Glaswegian wastrel who begins the film by narrowly escaping a prison sentence for aggravated assault. Giving a second chance by a lenient judge, Robbie vows to change his ways not just for himself, but for his long-term girlfriend Leonie (Siobhan Reilly) and their newborn son Luke.
Whilst serving out his punishment of 300 hours community service, Robbie meets a rag-tag, motley crew of past offenders including the morose Albert (Gary Maitland), kleptomaniac Mo (Jasmin Riggins) and serial prankster Rhino (William Ruane). Under the careful watch of kindly community service warden Harry (John Henshaw). Following an impromptu trip to a local distillery, the band of misfits are united by their appreciation of whisky, with the down-trodden Robbie eyeing an opportunity for redemption.
Despite denunciations of outright whimsy and some more than unflattering comparisons with Peter Cattaneo’s dated nineties hit The Full Monty (1997), Loach effectively clutches a heartfelt story out of the jaws of mawkishness. A hard, if subtle edge permeates throughout The Angels’ Share, as Robbie desperately fights against his own personal demons. One particularly stark scene takes place at a meeting for the victims of serious crime, where Robbie stoically listens to the testimony of a boy he part-blinded in an unprovoked assault three years back.
Like a fine single malt, Loach’s expert tonal blend of light and dark remains perfectly balanced throughout. The laughs come heavy and often, stemming from a range of sources including, but not restricted to Albert’s idiocy (he seems as unaware of his own national heritage as he does towards fine art – “Mona who?”), Harry’s endearing self-deprecation and the gang’s pivotal, if barmy, get-rich-quick scheme.
Loach’s film is far too easygoing and light on its feet to ever have been a true Palme d’Or contender, but no matter. With The Angels’ Share, he has concocted the rarest of things – a great Scottish comedy for the 21st century. Alongside Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011), this is far-and-away one of the most lovingly-crafted pieces of British cinema released this year, all the more pleasurable when you acknowledge that it comes from one of our best and longest-serving directors.