The Angels' Share--director Ken Loach's whiskey-infused tale of hooligans and heroes--is the best foreign film I've seen this year, even though it's in perfect English. Well, maybe not perfect: there's liberal usage of the "F" and "C" words, and the Scottish accents are so thick that the film requires subtitles.
Surrounded by the motliest of motley crews, the film's devil of an antihero, Robbie (Paul Brannigan in a star-making performance), is a 20-something thug who nearly beats another young man to death for little-to-no good reason, leaving his victim blind in one eye. Narrowly escaping a lengthy prison sentence, Robbie is instead committed to 300 hours of community service, when a judge recognizes that he might have one last shot at redemption in the personages of a saintly girlfriend and newly fathered infant. Little does Robbie know that his last shot may be in a shot glass.
When he and his other delinquent pals (thieves, swindlers and other screw-ups) visit a nearby distillery, Robbie discovers that he has a nose for whiskey (while his nose is being busted in a brawl). Robbie also learns about something called "the angels' share," the 2 percent of alcohol that evaporates from a whiskey cask each year.
The Angels' Share is equal parts comedy and drama but, thankfully, never devolves into a dramedy, an insipidly overused device in too many recent films. I must confess that a few minutes into this movie, I was almost certain that The Angels' Share wouldn't end well--the script is quite dark in its opening scenes. But not only does light appear at the end of this tunnel, the film becomes remarkably charming. I found myself wanting more from this group of cheerful chumps.
Director Loach is a controversial artist, famously refusing an honor from Queen Elizabeth in 1977 and calling for the funeral of Margaret Thatcher in April to be privatized and handed over to the lowest bidder. But Loach can't be denied as a breakthrough artist. His films are usually dark and promote social realism, which is why The Angels' Share--winner of the Jury Prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival--is such a surprise in its entertainment value: It has an oddly engaging, delightful darkness.
Your particular taste for this kind of hard R-rated movie might be best gauged by how much you wince when you down some fine Scotch whisky. For me, I was anxious for a double--perhaps with some water on the side.