Rating: ★★★★☆

There is a tendency to automatically associate the cinema of social realism exclusively with depicting unfortunate characters in desperate, bleakly laughless predicaments, and for much of Ken Loach’s back catalogue, this description might hold water. His latest film, The Angels’ Share, however, surprises as one of the year’s funniest films, while delivering an emotionally stirring tale of working-class redemption that is more typical of the director.

When we first meet young Scotsman Robbie (Paul Brannigan), he is before a judge being sentenced for a heinous and violent crime, getting off lightly with a measure of “community payback”. With the birth of his son, Robbie realises he has one final chance left to straighten his life out, and when the payback foreman Harry (John Henshaw) introduces him to some fine whiskey, he sees a chance to throw himself into something wholesome and also make some money.

While those initial sights of Glasgow’s Crown Court are hardly sweetness and light, Loach’s film is, in the face of the grim nature of his last three works, a more spry affair, light on its feet yet still sure to give the characters their due attention. Unexpectedly, some fairly crude toilet humour abounds – perhaps not the snuggest fit for Loach’s sensibilities – while spicing the jubilant, feel-good tone with pop classics such as The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”, a far cry from the straight-laced gravity of something like his recent Route Irish.

More transfixing than Loach’s change of pace, however, is the evocative performances he teases out of his mostly non-professional cast; as the lead, Brannigan is at once a charming rogue and likable lad who we want to see pass through the other side. Harnessing Robbie’s scarcely-contained anger beneath the surface – being goaded into violence by the local louts while desperately trying to escape this life – Brannigan, like many of Loach’s unassuming leads, is both a revelation and a major find.

While as much a comedy as it is a work of kitchen-sink authenticity, it is the finely fleshed-out characterisation – and therefore the less-humourous aspects – that really give this film its edge. Despite learning in painstaking detail the horrific nature of Robbie’s crime – a callous assault fully revealed in graphic flashback form – Loach successfully appeals to our compassionate acceptance of those who dare to change and defy expectation.

There is a caveat, though. Loach’s film feels morally confused when considering its central conceit – that Robbie and his felonious friends intend to steal some of the rarest prized whiskey in the world – for there is no attention paid to how Robbie is only escaping his situation through further crime. While one might suggest that this is itself a realistic depiction of life, Loach’s failure to confront the sad reality of this is both strange and a tad disappointing. It is as though Robbie is cheeky enough, and the crime seemingly innocuous enough, that this doesn’t matter.

That said, the “heist” itself is as thrilling – and in one pivotal scene, genuinely quite tense – as many Hollywood thrillers, another new venture for Loach and a challenge that he meets admirably. The fact that their heist involves not cash, bonds or gold bars but rather whiskey decanted into Irn-Bru containers also makes it inherently quite hilarious.

Though not everything quite works in The Angels’ Share, it is so invigorating and encouraging to see a filmmaker not only of Loach’s age, but his standing and fastidiousness, try something a little different. It has a spellbinding heft of charm, carrying itself just like a fine whiskey – warm, a little sweet, and unequivocally a joy to return to time and time again. Despite a peculiar moral centre, Loach’s latest is a charming, resonant crowd-pleaser.

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This article was first posted on May 22, 2012