When thinking about it, it’s surprising that Glasgow on Film hasn’t featured a movie directed by Ken Loach so far – surprising as there are so many of them set in Glasgow. Carla’s Song, My Name Is Joe, Ae Fond Kiss and most recently The Angels’ Share… all are set in Glasgow, while Sweet Sixteen is set not far away in Greenock and some filming for that title also took place in the city. What is quite remarkable is that the man who directed 2012’s The Angels’ Share – a realistic and contemporary drama surrounding a group of young Glaswegians – is the same man who directed the classic Kes 43 years earlier. Among his other non-Glasgow movie credits are Looking For Eric, which features footballer Eric Cantona, and The Wind That Shakes The Barley, starring Cillian Murphy.
The Scottish influence on this catalogue of films comes from writer Paul Laverty (born in India to a Scottish father and Irish mother, studied in Glasgow), who Loach collaborates with frequently – he is responsible for the majority of screenplays on Loach-directed films since their first collaboration on Carla’s Song in 1996.
Also notable about the production of The Angels’ Share – before we get to the plot – is its cast. In 2002 then teenaged footballer Martin Compston was cast in the lead role of Sweet Sixteen, his first ever acting role. A decade on and Compston (who, for the avoidance of confusion, does not appear in The Angels’ Share) is one of the UK’s most respected young actors on both film and television. History appears to be repeating itself with the lead actor in The Angels’ Share – Paul Brannigan. As with Compston, Brannigan was cast in the lead role with no prior acting experience, and has spoken openly in the media about being a young offender in his youth and being in serious debt prior to the beginning of his acting career – a career which is quickly blossoming as he is linked with the forthcoming films Under The Skin and Sunshine On Leith. Also making their acting debuts in Sweet Sixteen were Gary Maitland and William Ruane – now a familiar face on Scottish television – and both appear in prominent roles in The Angels’ Share. Completing the cast are well known English actors John Henshaw and Roger Allam, young actors Jasmin Riggins and Siobhan Reilly and real-life Scotch whisky expert Charles MacLean, who appears in the role of Rory McAllister.
So what is The Angels’ Share about? Central characters Robbie (Brannigan), Albert (Maitland), Mo (Riggins) and Rhino (Ruane) are thrown together on community service under the supervision of Henshaw’s Harry. The affable Harry takes pity on Robbie when his girlfriend’s male relatives violently attempt to exclude him from the life of the couple’s newly born baby boy. At his flat Harry gives whisky virgin Robbie a glass of a vintage Scotch to toast the birth of his son, and from there an interest and an apparent talent for identifying the components of a good whisky develop. Via visits to a distillery and a whisky tasting session in Edinburgh, the young group find themselves travelling north to the Balblair distillery where a “holy grail” cask of Malt Mill whisky, valued at over £1 million, is up for auction. The group siphon a few Irn Bru bottles full of the valuable liquid from the cask, replacing what is taken with whisky from another cask, and everyone – including the rich American who places the successful bid – is none the wiser. Robbie sells one of the bottles to Allam’s whisky collector for £100,000 and sets off in a camper van to start a new life with his girlfriend and son – not before leaving the other remaining bottle with a thank you note for Harry.
This is an excellent film on many levels and makes good use of locations in Glasgow and beyond. The film is described in its official blurb as “bittersweet” and that is spot on – there are violent scenes, sad scenes and it appears at times that there can be no return from the low point that Robbie’s life has reached, but on an upbeat note there is the comedy of Albert, the hope represented by Robbie’s young family, the good nature of Harry and of course the happy ending. The acting is first class too – as is the style with many of Loach’s films, the actors do not always appear if they are acting… if that makes sense. The flow of conversation between characters is very natural – one could believe they were eavesdropping on a real life conversation, not listening to actors who are working from a script. Paul Brannigan impresses in his debut, as mentioned above Gary Maitland is hilarious at times and a special mention must be made of Charles MacLean, who is a natural in his cameo appearance – GoF had actually assumed he was an experienced actor until spotting an article about the man in his day job in an inflight magazine.
Deservedly, Loach won the Jury Prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival for The Angels’ Share.