Friday, 1 June 2012

GFT programme note: The Angels' Share

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With opening credits barely complete, The Angels’ Share unequivocally marks its geography. As a Scottish accent makes mention of ‘strong fortified wine’, director Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty re-enter postcodes last visited in 2004’s Ae Fond Kiss. Of the duo’s twelve collaborations to date (if we include the short films contributed to 2002 anthology 11’09’’01 – September 11 and 2005 portmanteau Tickets), this is their sixth to feature Glasgow or its denizens, a creative affinity that has inspired some of Loach’s finest work.

The voice belongs to a judge, and references an incident in which a track-suited eejit named Albert (Gary Maitland) stumbles onto a railway line after imbibing rather more tonic wine than HEBS would recommend. While this blend of drunkenness and court-room opprobrium might suggest further affinities with the likes of My Name is Joe (1998) or Sweet Sixteen (2002) – similarities that extend beyond location – The Angels’ Share is an altogether breezier affair. And while trappings of Loach’s default socio-realist register are present – poverty, alcoholism and gang violence feature prominently – The Angels’ Share is, in the director’s own words, resolutely ‘feel-good’.[1] Its characters may face many of the same challenges as Peter Mullan’s Joe or Martin Compston’s Liam, but the outlook is significantly brighter. Within the filmmaker’s own oeuvre, its closest kin is 2009’s Looking for Eric, in which fantasy alleviated grim realities; outwith, the latter half is effectively a de-glossed Ocean’s Eleven (2001) – a scuffed tartan heist flick, with glass Irn Bru bottles instead of fake SWAT gear, and a highland distillery standing in for the Las Vegas Strip.

As indicated above, the film’s motley protagonists are introduced via court appearances: alongside Albert, Rhino (William Ruane) is found guilty of various under-the-influence offences (including urinating on Buchanan Street’s Donald Dewar statue), Mo (Jasmine Riggins) is an habitual thief, while Robbie (Paul Brannigan) is in the dock for an assault against local hard-case Clancy, with whom he has a long-standing rivalry. Interspersed are other convictions – a litany of petty crimes and alcohol-fuelled transgressions, for which community service sentences of varying length are distributed. In introducing the characters thus, the opening seems to spur the audience to make judgements based on first impressions alone – presenting members of civil society’s disorderly fringe as the sum of the accusations brought against them. Thereafter, however, this assumptive mind-set is challenged, as characters are softened from public nuisances into likable rogues. Robbie is made particularly sympathetic: when his girlfriend Leonie (Siobhan Reilly) goes into labour, he worries he won’t be allowed into the hospital to see her, due to a prominent facial disfigurement that telegraphs a chequered, violent past. ‘They’ll just take one look at my scar…’ he explains to sympathetic social worker Harry (John Henshaw). ‘It happens every time I go for a job as well’ he adds despondently – a point reiterated later by Leonie’s disapproving father, who notes ‘even the army wouldnae touch ye with a barge pole’. Robbie’s community service thereby becomes a metaphor for his self-improvement: tasked with renovating a disused community centre, he scrapes clean rough surfaces, paints over cracks, and fosters a convivial ‘community spirit’ with his fellow convicts in the process.

In certain respects, the character of Robbie is an extension of Liam, Sweet Sixteen’s feckless Greenock teenager: smart, resourceful, good-hearted, but oppressed by both circumstance and his own terrible temper. The latter factor is important: while Loach and Laverty stress mitigating factors in Robbie’s history of violence, a brutal flashback in which he hospitalises a man without provocation ensures his own culpability is not overlooked. He may be disadvantaged, but he’s also capable of extreme aggression, complicating our empathy. After establishing Robbie’s charm and apparent commitment to rehabilitation – making him a hero worth rooting for – we are asked to reconsider him in light of his most horrendous actions: as a ‘wee thug that doesnae even know any better’, in the words of the victim’s outraged mother. The film’s fairy-tale trajectory may contain its fair share of plot-advancing coincidences and all-too-neat resolutions, but in important areas, it is careful not to oversimplify.

Robbie’s road to redemption begins with a thirty-two-year-old Springbank single malt, offered by Harry in toast to Robbie’s son. ‘Tastes like shit’ comes the unimpressed verdict; ‘you philippine!’ splutters whisky aficionado Harry in response, batting away requests for a mixer. But with interest kindled by distillery visits and whisky meetings, Robbie quickly cultivates a palate and appreciation for the water of life, and with Rhino, Albert and Mo in tow, hatches a plan to profit from the sale of an extremely rare cask of ‘Malt Mill’. The kilted quartet’s highland caper takes them to the Balblair distillery – one of many elements likely to make the film a favourite among whisky societies as well as film clubs. To ensure accuracy, whisky expert Charlie Mclean acted as script consultant; later, he was asked to portray his fictional equivalent, Rory McAllister, in two key scenes. Elsewhere, Glengoyne and Deanston stand in for a single, fictionalised distillery (representing its exterior and interior respectively), at which the characters (and the audience) are given an abridged tour and potted lesson on distillation; a blind tasting of a Cragganmore, meanwhile, is the first indication of Robbie’s ‘nose’ for uisge beatha. As a result, whether you’re a malt connoisseur or an indubitable ‘philippine,’ you may well end up craving a dram by the film’s close – luckily, film-specific tasting notes have already emerged online. Blogger ‘Miss Whisky’, for one, recommends accompanying your viewing with a Balblair 1989, praising its ‘spicy, caramel-dipped apple and banana flavours’.[2] Sounds delicious – just don’t ask for ice.

Dr Christopher Buckle
Researcher and Journalist

June 2012




[1] Rosie Millard (2012) ‘Scotch and Robbers’ FT Magazine, accessed 29 May at www.ft.com/cms/s/2/aa206fa8-a472-11e1-a701-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1wLjo3vp3
[2] ‘An Angelic Whisky Celebration’ (2012), Miss Whisky, accessed 30 May at http://misswhisky.com/2012/05/22/an-angelic-whisky-celebration/

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