Sunday, March 17, 2013

142. British film director Ken Loach’s film “The Angels' Share” (2012): A comedy that entertains and makes you think as well

If you get half a dozen viewers of this lovely film together across a table and ask them what the film was all about after they had watched it, you are likely to get up to six different views on the same film. 

One would say it is a comedy. One would consider it to be a caper film. One would call it is a cinematic essay on the virtues of single malt whisky.  Another would see it as a study of dilemmas facing the urban Scottish youth today.  Yet another would see the movie as a critical look at the prevalent judicial system and its inadequate ways to reform delinquents who would love to reform and seek a life far away from the urban violence and gang warfare that they are involuntarily pulled into. A smart guy could interpret the tale as a family film, on the virtues of  looking ahead to build a financially secure future for your nuclear family. And there could be yet another view that this is a lopsided movie where the “bad” guys win. And all of these perceptions of the film would be correct. That is the intriguing aspect of The Angels' Share and that is also its unusual strength.

The reformer spotting the reform-able

If you ask a person of my age, The Angels' Share is first and foremost a lovely fictional tale revolving around Scotland’s most popular and distinct produce:  fine Scotch whisky, and more specifically, single malt whisky. And the film is NOT about people guzzling down the lovely liquid, euphemistically called the “water of life”; the film is instead a very educative movie that reveals all about the complexities of manufacturing it, aging it, grading it, evaluating the better ones by connoisseurs, and finally auctioning the rarest of the single malts (called “Malt Mill” in the movie) for incredible sums to bidders from all over the world, where the cost could be literally higher than gold.

In the words of director Ken Loach provided in an interview to Neil Ridley in the Whisky magazine: Appreciating whisky is about taking great care and enjoying it. It’s the opposite of just getting wasted. So, like anything, it’s about catching the imagination of younger people. It has the added bonus of requiring the drinker to keep focused to discover what they really like. (In the film) we discuss the remarkable longevity and job security often experienced at many of Scotland’s well-known distilleries and the fact that the whisky business is one of the only industries where people have remained with the same employer for decades, helping to maintain the sense of local community in rural Scotland.” Thus, in a way the film is not about whisky per se, but about the workers who are devoted to the industry that has made Scotland and fine whisky synonymous worldwide. Much of the film educates the viewer and would even serve as case studies for human resource management gurus as to why employees of these distilleries remain loyal to their employers—and, perish the thought; it is not because they get to swig the liquid.

One of the first and most important bits of trivia the viewer of the film learns is the meaning of the movie’s title: The Angels' Share.  When good whisky is aged in wooden oak barrels a small percentage of the liquid is lost to evaporation, and the varied flavors that the different oaks used to make the barrel can impart to the liquid ultimately makes the evaluation of the final product so important. The rarest of the single malts are auctioned just the way famous works of art are auctioned and buyers from all corners of the globe bid astronomical sums.  But then is the film The Angels' Share about whisky alone or something else?

The 76-year-old Ken Loach’s cinema (often termed as “kitchen-sink” realism) has been varied if one looks at his body of work. He has discussed the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War in The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006), which won the director the highest honor at the Cannes film festival that year.  His documentary film Which Side are You On? (1985), with the cinematographer Chris Menges,  was based on the songs and poems of the UK coal miners’ strike and the movie went on to win an award at the Berlin film festival after it encountered some stumbling blocks after it was made. Loach’s most important work is arguably Kes (1969), also with cinematographer Chris Menges, a tale of a troubled schoolboy and his pet bird, a kestrel. Today Kes is widely accepted as one of the finest works in British cinema.  In recent years, Loach’s nine film collaboration with Kolkata-born screenplay writer Paul Laverty has been phenomenal. The collaboration includes award-winning films The Wind that Shakes the Barley, The Angels' Share, Bread and Roses (2000), Carla’s Song (1996), Tickets (2005: co-directed by Iranian Abbas Kiarostami and Italian Ermanno Olmi) and Sweet Sixteen (2002),  Loach is definitely a socialist and a Free Thinker. And that is what makes his films tick—not just the subject he chooses but rather his approach to the subject. And going by the recent films, Paul Laverty has contributed considerably to Loach’s work getting increasingly recognized.

The Whisky magazine interview reveals this collaboration further when Loach discusses the genesis of The Angels' Share. Says Loach “Well Paul and I were endlessly nattering about the way of the world and the starting point was the massive alienation that you find among young Scottish people--where they’re often victims of a system that gives them nothing. We spent some time with them and were really struck by their wild senses of humor  how inventive they were and how they don’t fit the stereotype of what you’d imagine. From that, we started to think of a story that would really reflect this and give people a positive view of those who are often disregarded. Paul had the idea of marrying that with the ‘national industry’ and the arcane and extravagant language that whisky lovers use.

Getting the "share"

Therefore, director Loach and scriptwriter Laverty leverage the world of whisky production in The Angels' Share to give the viewer a comedy, a robbery film, and a social study of Scottish youth all knitted well to suit different viewer tastes.  The filmmakers are aware of the problems that face the poorer sections of the Glasgow population, mostly not well-educated and with few job opportunities available for them, caught up in the web of urban petty wars (or call it gang violence) that are generations old and eventually make the youngsters end up as law-breakers. The Angels' Share begins by focusing on the youngsters as Glasgow delinquents who take to drugs and violence and gradually become regular lawbreakers. Later into the film, the socialist Loach presents another contrasting view:  the educated and the rich can be equally doing acts that are against the law. The filmmakers point out that there are unethical criminal minds even among very important people in society who can be connoisseurs of single malt. Therefore, there is not much difference between those accepted in society and the social misfit Glaswegians, who just need a chance to change their lives. Loach and Laverty develop the film’s tale where actions of the ‘innovative’ and struggling delinquents appear acceptable as today’s modern quixotic Robin Hoods, who with their talent are able to conjure up law-breaking acts that forge a pathway to reform themselves and escape getting sucked into a no-win whirlpool of crime and punishment.

It is equally a family film where the new responsibility dawning on a young father makes a life-changing difference in attitudes. A misfit in society suddenly yearns to fit into the very society that would have rejected him through his own ingenuity and a little help from a mentor who has faith in him.

A fellow film-festival junkie was exasperated that he could not follow the merry jokes that pepper the film, which this critic fortunately could, having worked with Scots as colleagues over the decades.  For those who might be watching the film on DVD, it might help if the subtitles are turned on to aid with the comprehension. If you can follow the language in the movie, the film would prove to be a delight apart from some obvious visual humor of police harassment of the kilt-wearing youngsters.

Realism mixing with visual humor

There is an underlying message that the film offers. That message is typified by the character of the community service supervisor in the film. Even the dregs in our society can redeem themselves if one gives them a fleeting chance to do so, especially when they are young, and steer them in the right direction. Some viewers of The Angels' Share might wonder if the ending of the film is an ethical one—but one has to consider the broader canvas of the film that Loach and Laverty have painted on and we realize the film’s stealing angle is only a segment of the total picture. The movie is about a bouquet of subjects—it is even a tale of a "bad guy" reforming as much as it is a classical love story of the hero riding off into the sunset with his spouse and their new born child.

And that brings us back to double meaning of the movie’s title The Angels' Share.  The second meaning of the term in the movie’s context could also be interpreted as the share of the robbery for the true angels in the film. The Angels' Share is a movie that gets you to tap your feet to the music of the Proclaimers’ 1988 song ”I am gonna be/500 miles” that also underlines the optimism of the film embodied by the engaging debut performance of actor Paul Brannigan as the lead character, Robbie, in the film. The film won for Loach the Cannes jury prize in 2012, which is effectively the prize given to the second best film in competition each year. And Loach continues to bewitch audiences and film festivals decade after decade.

P.S. The Angels' Share is one of the top 10 films of 2012 for the author.   

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