'The Angels' Share' is an odd mix of frivolous and socially conscious

( Unrated ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

'Angels' follows a group of Glasgow toughs who try to pull off a robbery of high-end whiskey.

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A heist unites social misfits (l. to r.) Mo (Jasmin Riggins), Rhino (William Ruane), Robbie (Paul Brannigan), and Albert (Gary Maitland) in ‘The Angels’ Share.’

The British director Ken Loach has usually gone in for kitchen-sink realism of the bleakest sort, but he does occasionally come up for air and make comedies. Of course, a Loach comedy isn’t the same thing as a Judd Apatow comedy. Beneath even the most frivolous of his escapades beats the heart of a thoroughgoing socialist scourge.

“The Angels’ Share,” about a group of Glasgow toughs who attempt to pull off a robbery of high-end whiskey in the Highlands, is alternately delightful and bewildering. The bewilderment exists because Loach can’t quite let go of his political scruples. There are sequences in this movie that are as hard-edged as anything he’s ever done and others that are not far removed from something like “Billy Elliott.” He wants to make a crowd-pleaser but doesn’t quite have the knack for it. He’s too socially conscious for that.

With his longtime collaborator, Scottish screenwriter Paul Laverty, Loach tries to give realism a bit of a bounce here. The narrative continually swerves from the gritty to the fanciful. The filmmakers don’t go in for a lot of touristy Scottish Highland stuff, but when they choose to draw on such material, it’s always in a lightly satirical vein.

Those toughs, for example, decide to wear kilts in order to credibly impersonate the alleged “Carntyne Malt Whisky Club.” By the time this happens, they have already been thoroughly domesticated in our eyes. When the film begins, Robbie (first-time actor Paul Brannigan, with a rough background similar to his character’s) has been assigned to community service after a violent episode, narrowly avoiding a jail sentence because the judge believes he can become a better man. Soon Robbie’s partner Leonie (Siobhan Reilly) has a baby boy, and, cradling the child, Robbie whispers to him that he will never hurt another person again. This is especially telling because there is a scene in “The Angels’ Share” in which Robbie is made to meet the family of a boy he battered. It’s difficult to listen to what happened, with garish flashbacks inserted, and entirely warm to Robbie afterward.

The other miscreants assigned to community service are a bumptious lot (another sign that Loach is in a mellow mood). Dweeby Albert (Gary Maitland), jokester Rhino (William Ruane), and klepto Mo (Jasmin Riggins) all fall in line with Robbie’s whiskey-heist scheme, hatched when the group’s kindly counselor, Harry (John Henshaw), takes them on a guided tour of a local distillery. Harry takes a particular interest in Robbie because he sees what an outcast Leonie’s family – society itself, in Loach’s view – has made of him. Harry is the film’s finest creation, a man who possesses the most refined instincts for gauging the good in people, especially misfits. He’s like a guardian angel but, thanks to Henshaw’s warm performance, he comes across as entirely credible.

How does Loach turn this rather mild material into a social tract? Robbie, it turns out, has an amazing nose for whiskey. He can decode the various blends with just a whiff. So we are led to believe that the proletariat is innately every bit as refined as the ruling class. And because Robbie is ripping off people who are idiotic enough to spend a million pounds for a bottle of very rare whiskey, he’s something of a Robin Hood, too. Only the spoils mostly go into the pockets of the thieves. The title of “The Angels’ Share” refers to the 2 percent of whiskey that vaporizes annually as it matures. The film itself vaporizes before your eyes, but it’s likable. Given its unstable mishmash of thuggery and whimsy, that’s something of an achievement. Grade: B-

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