The Angels’ Share (2012)

Ken Loach goes easy on the grit, promotes the inspirational side of this dramatic fairy tale in which Scottish whisky plays a central role. 

Angels’ ShareUK
3.5*

Director:
Ken Loach

Screenwriter:
Paul Laverty

Director of Photography:
Robbie Ryan

Running time: 100 minutes

Ken Loach is not exactly known for the flippant nature of his films. He has, together with fellow British director Mike Leigh, carved out the gritty social realist niche of his country’s film industry and has done so methodically over more than four decades since one of his first films, Kes, burst onto the screen in 1969.

His primary focus on the working class and his obviously sincere attempts to capture their toil and struggles, and represent them by actors in a fictional film, has gained him a large following of filmgoers who perceive the cinema as a tool to bring such naturalism to people’s attention.

In The Angels’ Share, he still follows that line, though the territory he stakes out is a bit more obviously cinematic than one would have expected from him. Nonetheless, the film’s best bits are all firmly tied to the central, slightly contrived, thrust of the narrative, and oddly enough the bits of social drama we would have guessed to be Loach’s strong suit come across as little more than an afterthought.

Set in Glasgow, the film opens with a gorgeous introductory sequence in juvenile court, where many young boys and girls are mostly sentenced to community service for their various crimes. One of the boys is a young man called Robbie (Paul Brannigan), who has a scar across his face, which he got, we soon learn, one night when he was walking the streets while coked up and decided it would be a good idea to kick a random stranger to within an inch of his life.

We never see the rest of Robbie’s family, and he spends most of his evenings on a mattress at a friend’s apartment. He has just become a father, but his girlfriend’s family has no intention of allowing him to associate with his new-born son. There are other young men, too, who threaten to beat him up if they see him around, and the fear he has for his well-being is as warranted as it is constant.

These threats manifest themselves in a few small scenes of mild violence, but Robbie doesn’t seem to live in any fear and refuses to let the young hoodlums get to him. This storyline doesn’t always come across as coherently as it should, as Robbie’s girlfriend appears and disappears for the sake of a narrative that seems to pretend it has powerful domestic questions to resolve, but actually this is just padding for the other storyline.

This other part of the film is much more interesting, though it is by no means exceptional. It has to do with Robbie’s friendship with Harry (John Henshaw), the father-like guard on duty during the community service hours, from whom he learns all about whisky and discovers he has a natural talent for appreciating this malt spirit. He is noticed by a whisky collector, Thaddeus (Roger Allam), who is impressed by Robbie’s knowledge and feeling for the drink. And the time Robbie has spent in jail comes in handy enough when he recognises the potential money to be made from the whisky industry.

Like magic dust on the grim, directionless lives of the main characters, most of them involved in community service projects after run-ins with the law, the “angels’ share” in the title refers to the small fraction of whisky that disappears over time while it is kept in the oak barrels. It evaporates, and is therefore handed to the angels, as it were. The film’s intention is to make whisky a kind of golden elixir that gives Robbie a new lease on life, or perhaps a new life altogether, pulling him up into the ranks of honest work, and for this purpose the drink is well-chosen.

Like the work of fellow countryman Leigh, Loach draws very credible performances from his actors, many of whom, including lead actor Brannigan, had never starred in a film before. There is very little in the film that feels acted or staged, with the exception of Robbie’s girlfriend, who sometimes delivers her lines with visibly less poise than her fellow cast members.

The Angels’ Share is performed in a very strong Glaswegian accent that is not always easy to follow, though the actions and the general ambience of the film are put onscreen very well and allow viewers outside Glasgow to follow the storyline and easily empathise with these characters. While issues of drugs and poverty are touched on, the film has an optimistic approach to the representation of this working-class segment of the population and seeks to inspire the viewer.

This inspirational approach produces something a bit like a fairy tale that may not be credible to everyone, but it makes for a film well worth watching.

I, Daniel Blake (2016)

Newcastle’s welfare office becomes a Kafkaesque setting of incompetence and callousness offering no substantive assistance to the desperate and the unemployed in Ken Loach’s searing I, Daniel Blake.

i-daniel-blakeUK
4.5*

Director:
Ken Loach

Screenwriter:
Paul Laverty

Director of Photography:
Robbie Ryan

Running time: 100 minutes

Kafka is alive and well in Newcastle, and by extension, most of Western society. The black-and-white opening credits of Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or–winning are accompanied by the sound of Daniel Blake, a 59-year-old widower and former carpenter, trying to knock common sense into a “healthcare professional” who is assessing his case for state benefits. We never see said “professional”, and occasionally we also learn that an equally nameless “decision maker” will resolve Daniel’s case for better or worse.

Dave Johns stars as the recently-stricken-by-a-heart-attack Blake, whose doctor has stated that he should not be working. After he makes a fuss over the bureaucracy he encounters (he had to complete a 52-page form, which somehow still proved insufficient for the government), he is told that a decision has been made that he is fit to work and has to spend 35 hours a week looking for work in order to be eligible for benefits.

The welfare office is always abuzz with activity, but the place reeks of condescension, with middle-aged, lower-middle-class women barking orders at those slightly less fortunate than themselves, pretending that following the rules will somehow lead to a better life. Nobody is listened, everybody is talked down to, and there is no way for the welfare seekers to hang on to their dignity without the government stiffing them for talking back.

It is a desperate situation, and yet Dan has seen worse in his lifetime. His wife died not long ago, and his memories of her, in particular the song the liked, Ronald Binge’s “Shipping By”, which always precedes the BBC’s shipping forecast, appears to keep his spirits up. His pleasant demeanour inspires those around him, including his neighbour, China (the ever-smiling Kema Sikazwe), a resourceful young man who is importing trainers from – you guessed it! – China.

But it is his chance meeting with Katie Morgan (a mesmerisingly intense Hayley Squires), a woman in her mid-20s raising two children from two different fathers on her own, that carries the narrative. After defending her against the callousness of the employees at the welfare office, he quickly strikes up a friendship with her, her daughter, Daisy, and her son, Dylan, and helps them settle into their new but dilapidated home, where his skills as a carpenter and an all-round man of the house come in handy.

The scenes with Katie, who has not found work yet and is unlikely to receive anything from the government because she made a scene, according to the office manager, sustain the narrative and show us how these two characters lean on each other, finding strength and companionship despite their lonely fight against the state Goliath.

The film contains a few powerful scenes, but its power comes from the quiet bubbling desperation that we see in Katie’s life and that we fear might snatch the life from what remains of Daniel’s existence. There is nothing worse than seeing people do their best to care for themselves and for those close to them but having to take desperate measures when push comes to shove. In Katie’s case, she starts skipping meals so that her children have enough to eat, and when she is caught shoplifting, a security guard tells her her looks could help her bring in the money she needs.

As the title indicates, however, the film’s primary concern is identity, and in particular, the need to stand up against anyone – even the State – looking to tear us down. Daniel Blake is recovering from a heart attack, but even a healthy man or woman would blanch at the sight of the bureaucracy and emotional manipulation in which this government agency specialises. For example, Daniel knows nothing about computers and has never used a mouse, but because all the forms he needs are online, and the welfare office refuses to print him a paper copy, he goes hither and thither to complete the process. The final nail in the coffin is when we realise one woman at the office, Ann, wants to help him but is either told to follow the rules or advises him to do things according to the guidelines lest he find himself out on the street, something she has witnessed in the past.

This is a damning indictment of the heartlessness of the Conservative UK government in particular, but more generally of Western society as a whole, which is concerned about its unemployment rates but cares little for the unemployed, not the unemployable.

There will be few dry eyes in the house at the close of the film, and hopefully many a viewer’s heart will beat with rage at the injustice that good people suffer at the hands of those who follow often pointless rules to a fault and relish their power over the powerless.

Viewed at the Be2Can 2016 Film Festival.