The title of Ken Loach’s The Angels’ Share refers to a poetic description of an inevitable loss. Whiskey spends many years maturing in wooden barrels before it’s ready to be sold and consumed, and during that time, a significant portion of its original volume simply evaporates—up to 30 percent in some cases. There’s no way to prevent this, so distillers, who are apparently a cheerful lot, like to imagine that the heavenly host are sipping the escaping spirits in mid-air. The same sense of good-natured optimism permeates this lighthearted comedy, which begins like a typical Loach picture—desperately poor, perpetually angry kid attempts to escape grim circumstances and a legacy of violence with the help of a tough-but-compassionate social worker—but soon metamorphoses into a leftist version of a goofy heist movie.
The kid in question, played by charismatic newcomer Paul Brannigan, has a serious girlfriend and infant child, but remains obsessed with proving his manhood in a particularly rough section of Glasgow. Sentenced to a bout of community service following an assault, he’s taken under the wing of social worker John Henshaw, who happens to be an amateur whiskey connoisseur, when he isn’t helping troubled youth. When Henshaw takes his charges on a tour of a distillery, Brannigan discovers that he possesses an unusually keen palate, and immerses himself further into this rarefied world. From there, it’s only a short step to rounding up three of his best community-service pals and roping them into a plot to siphon off much more than the angels’ share from a cask of the world’s rarest and most expensive whiskey—not as mere larceny, mind you, but in order to fund Brannigan’s move to a new, less dangerous neighborhood.
In spite of all the Glaswegian specificity (including accents so thick that they require English subtitles), The Angels’ Share is the first Loach movie that seems ripe for an American remake—though it’s still a long way from The Wind That Shakes The Barley, much less Kes or Land And Freedom. There’s even a traveling montage set to The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” as if nobody had ever thought of that before. But the cast is immensely appealing, the heist is ingenious, and the collision of hardscrabble working-class kids and Sideways-style alcohol snobs generates steady laughs, though somewhat predictable ones. What’s more, a real-life “Master of the Quaich,” Charlie MacLean, makes such a favorable impression, more or less playing himself, that he manages to sell the idea of tasting as an art form, with Brannigan as its potential Picasso. Given the average viewer’s knee-jerk antipathy to the sight of anyone sniffing a cork, that’s no small achievement.