Ken Loach's rather wonderful The Angels' Share almost seems like two movies. It begins as a gritty urban drama about young people on Glasgow's margins, but midway through, it becomes a very funny caper comedy. At first I worried. Is the transition awkward? But then I remembered that a similar shift takes place in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I stopped worrying. Sometimes a good story doesn't have to be all one thing.
The angels' share is, we're told, an expression related to the distilling of Scotch whisky. As the liquid ages in casks, a small amount of it evaporates, disappears - the angels' share.
This we learn on a trip to a distillery. The tour is a special treat arranged by Harry (John Henshaw), who oversees a group of young Glaswegians as they perform court-ordered community service.
One is Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a bright kid with a dim future. He wants to be a good father to his newborn child, but he is stuck in a cycle of drugs, crime and violence. He has served prison time for a brutal attack on a stranger; a scene in which his victim confronts him is agonizing. He is pursued by thugs who resent him. There seems to be no way out.
This material could make for a gripping cautionary tale about the depredations of poverty. But gradually we realize that the film's true topic is whisky, and that Loach (The Wind That Shakes the Barley) has a lot to tell us about how it is made, and how obsessive people are about it. I love this aspect of the movie, and I bet the same will be true for fans of artisanal food production. There are a few of those in Madison.
Robbie is fascinated by the distillery tour, and with his natural talent for tasting and identifying whisky, he proves to be one of those great movie prodigies. A job in the industry seems to be on the horizon, and I can imagine a more straightforward story about Robbie getting on the right path in a reputable profession.
But as in other Loach films, there is class conflict. With his downwardly mobile chums from community service (Gary Maitland, Jasmin Riggins, William Ruane), Robbie hatches a scheme to steal priceless whisky and swindle the rich people who covet it. His plan reminds me of scenes from elegant heist movies like Rififi.
In sequences that play out as ensemble comedy, the friends don kilts and hitchhike to some achingly beautiful part of Scotland. These actors are really hilarious together. Note: If you are squeamish about the C-word, be forewarned. These characters like it. I've never heard it used so imaginatively.