The Angels’ Share (2012) is a Cannes Jury Prize winning film. Given this accolade it seems a little surprising that the film’s central focus is whisky. Whisky and young Scots in kilts, to be precise. Yet more surprises are in store. This Ken Loach film, with screenplay by regular collaborator Paul Laverty, is far from their usual fare. Although there is plenty of gritty social realism initially, The Angels’ Share is ultimately a heist movie with a perky, upbeat ending. This is very unlike their previous films set in Scotland. Sweet Sixteen (2002), for instance, similarly tackles youth, unemployment, violence, drugs and urban decay but in a much darker vein. By contrast, The Angels’ Share is an engaging, funny and thoughtful film, blending its depictions of hard urban realities with tongue-in-cheek humour and moments of slapstick. This cocktail of elements is the film’s greatest achievement, the successful mixing of comedy and suspense with a thoughtful look at the difficulties of post-industrial youth in deprived inner cities. In this it has international appeal as something of a humorous Scots Boyz n the Hood (1991), albeit without the guns and famous rappers. This is a film about disenfranchised teens living dead-end lives for whom an unlikely ticket out of their hometown offers an escape from generational cycles of violence. Fortunately, this serious subject matter is dealt with without preaching, and with enough beautiful Scottish Highland scenery to offer a flavour that can be savoured by a wide audience.
Along with the Loch Ness Monster, whisky is Scotland’s most famous global export. It is popular especially amongst its twenty million strong international diaspora. But all is not straightforward with the film’s depiction of the whisky trade. The expression, “The Angels’ Share”, we are informed during the first of two distillery visits depicted in the movie, refers to the amount of whisky which evaporates during its manufacture. The film uses this as a metaphor to describe how the lives of alienated post-industrial youths can evaporate into thin air in contemporary Scotland. It addresses this issue by painting this disreputable demographic in a positive light, transforming its protagonist, Robbie (first time actor Paul Brannigan), from a violent young thug into a caring young father as angelic as his bonnie, knife-scarred face.
Robbie is joined on his journey to manhood by three pals, also from Glasgow. These petty criminals meet whilst fulfilling their requisite punishment of ‘community payback’, repainting a community centre under the supervision of the avuncular Harry (popular UK actor John Henshaw). After seeing the difficulties that Robbie faces with his brutal father-in-law, Harry gives Robbie shelter in his home, and realising his potential as a whisky taster, takes him under his wing. At a whisky tasting in scenic Edinburgh they encounter a shadowy whisky collector, Thaddeus (Roger Allam), and hear tell of a rare ‘Malt Mill’, worth over £1m, soon to be auctioned off in the Highlands. The four teenagers, led by Robbie, execute a dangerous heist, stealing a quantity of the whisky and, after much tribulation, selling a bottle of it to Thaddeus for £100,000. Each teenager receives an equal share, and Robbie negotiates a job at a whisky distillery. Finally Robbie departs Glasgow with his girlfriend and baby son, escaping the violence of his previous life.
The tough realist edge to this story of evaporating youth is no accident. Laverty visited the Polmont Young Offenders Institution when writing the screenplay, encountering a youth demographic who did not think they had a realistic future in employment, due to lack of educational and job opportunities. (1) Accordingly, the four young shell-suited scallywags are introduced to us standing in the dock for the minor misdemeanours of the terminally bored. Albert (Gary Maitland) for being drunk on a railway line, Mo (Jasmine Riggins) for stealing a Macaw from a pet shop, and Rhino (William Ruane) for climbing a city centre statue whilst inebriated. Robbie’s problem, however, is of a more serious nature. His violence towards a rival young male from the same neighbourhood, his nemesis Clancy (Scott Kyle), is a vendetta resulting from a feud between their fathers. With no positive outlet in employment, the film observes, post-industrial masculinity is trapped into cycles of pointless violence. In this respect The Angels’ Share joins a tradition of Scottish films to explore troubled youth, including Bill Forsyth’s That Sinking Feeling (1980), Small Faces (1996), Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996) and Peter Mullan’s NEDS (2010). Yet The Angels’ Share is different. Through Robbie – Brannigan was formerly a young offender, prior to being discovered by Loach and Laverty – it tackles what it means to be a father when living in deprived urban conditions, and through whisky (or more precisely the whisky trade), suggests how gainful employment offers a way out of them.
Whisky first appears when Harry opens a valuable bottle in celebration of the birth of Robbie’s son, Luke. In this pivotal scene, Robbie makes a decision to break the cycle of violence he is trapped in, not wanting to perpetuate the same conditions for his son as he endured himself. He refuses to name Luke after his father, a decision also in defiance of his violent father-in-law’s wishes for a grandson called Vincent. Thus to the film’s credit, Robbie is not painted as a victim of the system deserving of our sympathy, but as a young man attempting to shape their destiny in spite of tough circumstances. Twice in the opening half of the film Robbie is called a thug. His shame at the truth of this label provides a new impetus for his life as he seeks to find a trade in the whisky business.
Through Robbie’s mature approach to whisky, Loach and Laverty offer younger viewers a clear choice, whether to drink away their lives, or find gainful employment. In an unforgettable scene, the four entrepreneurial teens are contrasted with two hapless peers who struggle to make a television work so they can tune out in front of it, farting and smoking cheap cigarettes. In a standout moment, a plastic jug of whisky, which has been spat out by the four youngsters as they learn how to appreciate whisky’s various aromas and flavours (in the professional manner, without getting inebriated), is glugged down in one go by a hungover peer. This absolutely revolting scene of lumpy, phlegmy whisky consumption, at once disgusting and hilarious, draws a distinction between types of possible youth activity. There are the pointless slackers with no future and then there are the connoisseurs who are going places.
Even so, the end result of Robbie’s conversion, the securing of employment, would be fairly boring if The Angels’ Share did not attempt to engage the audience through more generic pleasures. It is the whisky heist, then, that stirs up the flavour. When Robbie undertakes his daring raid on the distillery the tension mounts nicely as he is nearly discovered syphoning off the Malt Mill. Suspense is generated by his accident-prone companions in crime and the potentially disastrous consequences should they be caught. The nervousness of watching the low-tech heist – perpetrated with backpack, a length of hose for syphoning, and a few empty IRN BRU soda bottles – indicates how cut off Robbie and his friends are from the bounty of the nation. Just compare it to the slick, high-tech heists of mainstream blockbusters like Ocean’s Eleven (2001) or the Mission Impossible movies. The dishevelled, scarred Robbie is as far from a George Clooney or Tom Cruise as one could find, but this is still a genuinely sweaty palm moment. After all, not only must Robbie steal his way into employment, but he risks incarceration and the likely break-up of his family if caught.
This theme of marginalised youth seeking a way in to the national wealth impacts directly on The Angels’ Share‘s depiction of Scotland. The film does not disappoint in touristic vistas, including beautiful panoramic shots of the Scottish countryside accompanied by trademark Scottish band The Proclaimers. Nor is it angelically innocent in its packaging of Scotland in the most positive light. Having twice visited the distillery that features early on in the film, I can safely say that I have never encountered such a young, beautiful, blond, guide! However, the film uses its touristic locations to demonstrate how little the young protagonists know of the Scotland that tourists visit. Not only has Robbie never tasted whisky before, but dim-witted Albert has led a life so cut off from his national heritage that he cannot even identify Edinburgh Castle. Thus, whilst the brand names of several high profile export whiskies are mentioned in the film, any hint of tourist boosterism is offset by the role whisky plays in Robbie’s apprenticeship. Whisky may sell to tourists, but it also gives a livelihood to Scots.
In addition to both revelling in and undercutting touristic views of Scotland, The Angels’ Share very pointedly lifts up the nation’s kilts to take a peek underneath, where all is not well. The youngsters choose kilts for their trip to the distillery not as proud, nationally representative costumes, but simply so they can blend in with the ‘whisky trainspotters’ who populate the Highlands. On their return to Glasgow, they are not so lucky. Police officers randomly search them, forcing the three boys to lift their kilts, front and back. Here the kilted brand image of Scotland is undercut by the casually invasive nature of the police. This moment references two iconic films, Carry On Up the Khyber (1968) and Braveheart (1995). Only in this instance the defiant gestures of exposure in the previous films (full frontal in the Carry On movie, mooning in Braveheart) are replaced with a procedure more familiar to prison inmates. Even when not incarcerated these young men are strip searched in their own neighbourhoods as though they were. What lies beneath the kilted image of Scotland, the film prompts us to consider, are forgotten young men whose homes are prisons, and whose lives evaporate into drink, drugs, petty crime and routine police harassment. They are Scotland’s Angels’ share.
This brings us to the ending. Ultimately Robbie pulls off his heist, secures a job in a whisky distillery and an escape for his young family into the Scottish countryside. But how happy is this ending? One young man escapes, but his three friends remain. All are richer, but none have gained in prospects. To understand this ambiguity, the film’s depiction of the Scottish diaspora as returning tourists provides the key. The purchase of the Malt Mill by a US businessman, whose tartan scarf signals that he identifies with his Scottish heritage, is not only an easy laugh at the expense of a tourist. Granted, he has paid over £1m for a rare whisky and cannot detect that it has been watered down by Robbie. Even so, the US tourist is far from a joke. He literally represents the greater wealth of the diaspora, indicating the financial benefits of escape from Scotland as a historical fact.
In this way a great deal of optimism attaches to Robbie’s departure from Glasgow for pastures new. But the question of a Scotland’s youth’s sustainable future also remains unresolved in the lives of his pals. Their final resolution is simply to go for a drink. This instability returns us to Boyz n the Hood, via father figure Harry. Robbie receives his education in whisky tasting from Harry. Fittingly, Robbie’s parting gift to his guardian angel is a bottle of the rare Malt Mill, which he leaves with a card describing it as the ‘Angel’s Share’. As mentor and teacher, Harry offers an alternative model of fatherhood, much as Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne) does in Boyz n the Hood. In contrast to the violence of Robbie’s father and father-in-law, Harry provides food, shelter and education. Therefore, despite the similarities between The Angels’ Share and films about disenfranchised teens globally – La Haine (France, 1995), Beer, Pizza, Cigarettes (Argentina, 1998), Attack the Gas Station (South Korea, 1999), City of God (Brazil, 2002), Unknown Pleasures (China, 2002) – in respect of its offsetting of young and old masculine types it shares common ground with a trend of US films with strong male mentors, from Boyz n the Hood to Coach Carter (2005). Although it has a distinctive Scottish flavour, this is ultimately a film both for post-industrial teens worldwide and those whose duty it is to care for them.
With this in mind, amidst all the surprises, two stand out. The first is that the film’s most simple suggestion, of the worthwhile nature of gainful employment, seems so novel. The Angels’ Share brings into sharp relief knowledge that has been speedily forgotten in certain demographics, due to very real, unequal material conditions experienced globally in the early twenty-first century. The second is that in spite of carrying this weight on its shoulders, this is an optimistic film, and one which makes you laugh whilst also making you think.