Director Spotlight: Ken Loach: The Angels’ Share

For decades, Ken Loach has remained one of the most politically-minded filmmakers; his films themselves, almost never deal specifically with politics, but the characters in question, are always affected by social inequity, therefore turning his movies into heartfelt, but objective, socio political essays.

Trying to peg what is it that makes a Ken Loach movie, “a Ken Loach movie” is quite hard, given that he never relies on stylistic choices to help us determine his auteurship. Yet, once we’re watching the action unfold, the characters evolve in front of us and the plot take a turn towards the bittersweet, we know it…this is why The Angel’s Share feels so confusing at first. 

Loach’s movies are never really funny, but there is a deep humanism in them that unavoidably leads to moments that make us laugh. The Angel’s Share in fact begins like most of his movies: we meet a down on his luck man named Robbie (Paul Brannigan), who on the very first scene gets sentenced to providing hours of community service for a small crime.

Within the next few scenes, we see Robbie’s girlfriend (Siobhan Reilly) give birth to their child, her relatives assaulting him and we only assume things will only get worse after that. The surprise here is that they don’t; Mr. Loach pulls the rug from under us and delivers a movie we can actually call a comedy. To put it in more straightforward terms, this is his Ocean’s Eleven, complete with a heist!

The mention of a gloriously capitalistic film like the all-star caper featuring the biggest names in Hollywood, next to one of Mr. Loach’s socialist films, must sound like blasphemy to some, but in reality, this might be one of the lightest movies he’s ever made (in terms of plot of course). And all of this is praise! It’s not that the director is letting go of his “stricter” values, it’s just that it seems like he’s found a way to be charming and playful about them.

The plot then centers on how Robbie realizes he has a natural ability to differentiate whisky and develops a plan to steal and resell the contents of a priceless cask known as the “Malt Mill”. What ensues is a series of hilarious episodes in which we see the director at his most delightful. The Angel’s Share gives him the opportunity to use his keen eye for social injustice and put it at the service of a story that never seems intent on depressing us or teaching us something. The main difference between this and something like Ocean’s Eleven for example, being the reasons behind the heist. Where one suggests a life of crime equates a life of glamour and decadence, the other asks what were the social circumstances that led characters to believe a life of theft was the only way out.

Loach’s cinema has never been didactic to begin with, but his movies have always had a sense of larger than life importance. Because he is so good at capturing the greatness found in the “smallest” human beings, his movies can’t help but feel grand in a contained manner. The work of his actors in this film is remarkable, especially Brannigan as the easily excitable Robbie and Roger Allam as a whisky collector.

With a moving screenplay by frequent collaborator Paul Laverty and efficient cinematography by Robbie Ryan, The Angel’s Share has the ability to both remove you from your own troubles and serve as escapism, while offering a snapshot of the way in which modern economies are paving the way for poverty, while the privileged continue to become richer and richer. This is served to us in an unexpected manner when we learn what the film’s title means, which is essentially the part of liquor lost in the casket due to evaporation. With the movie, Mr. Loach seems to be asking us, and what have these self-entitled “angels” have done to deserve this privilege?

The Angels’ Share is now playing in theaters and on demand.