Veteran social-realist director Ken Loach, 76, may be at his spunkiest defending the “c-word.” Upon the completion of his new Glasgow-set comedy, The Angel’s Share, he found himself in a fracas with the British Board of Film Classification, which objected to instances of the epithet in Paul Laverty’s screenplay. Pronounced “coont” in brogue, the term is less taboo in working-class Scotland than it is in middle-class England, and still less than in America, where it retains a status as the most obscene monosyllable in the lexicon. (Recall The Onion’s tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis at this year’s Oscars.) At Cannes, where his film took the Jury Prize in 2012, Loach railed against the arbitrary and classist hegemony of the ratings system. As he explained to The Guardian, BBFC was “obsessed” with the word: “We were allowed seven cunts … but only two of them could be aggressive cunts.” I’m not sure what the final count was, because the version of The Angel’s Share I saw did not have subtitles. (The theatrical version is subtitled.) It’s possible I got lucky: this “language barrier” may have added a measure of otherwise-lacking exoticism to this familiar tale. Despite its racy language, the film feels soft-edged and flabby for a UK comedy import.
The film opens in a courtroom in which a string of young delinquents stands before a judge and is sentenced to community service. Mo (Riggins) was arrested for stealing a bird from a pet shop. Albert (Maitland) was loitering drunkenly on train tracks. Rhino (Ruane) peed on some statues, and Robbie (Brannigan) assaulted a stranger so violently that the victim was blinded in one eye. One of these things is not like the other, but Robbie is let off without jail time because his girlfriend, Leonie (Reilly), is pregnant and due any day. She warns him that if he ever gets arrested again, he will be out of her and the baby’s life for good. He vows to go straight. Or straightish.Brannigan, a nonactor, is credible in the role – when he picks up a brick, you believe he’s actually going to throw it at somebody. He’s likable, too, resembling James Dean in the eyes and in the way he puckers his brow. At a work detail, Mo, Albert, Rhino and Robbie meet their supervisor, Harry (Henshaw), who takes pity on the kids. Harry, a whisky connoisseur, discovers that Robbie has a nose for subtle notes of variation in the drink. (The emphasis on his olfactory prowess seems odd, given his frequently busted beak and propensity for getting “coked to the gills.”) After learning the ins and outs of the fine whisky trade, Robbie breaks into a distillery on the eve of an auction and pumps a cask’s worth of million-pound liquid gold from a barrel. As the whisky-education and heist plots develop, drama morphs into farce, and suddenly the Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” starts blaring the moment anybody gets behind the wheel of an automobile. Poor Leonie and the baby all but disappear from the story, and Loach disregards the fact that a transition from battery to larceny is not what she had in mind when she asked Robbie to change. The title, by the way, refers to the distillation process: the 2% of whisky that evaporates in the barrel is known as “the angel’s share.” I’m afraid there’s more than 2% evaporation going on in Loach’s latest.