I recently interviewed Scottish screenwriter Paul Laverty about his latest film, The Angels’ Share, a story about a group of petty criminals who decide to steal a cask of valuable whisky. I met Laverty at the Liberty Hotel, a former jail that is now a lavish hotel. Now, the multiple levels of prisoner cells circling the outside of the round lobby have been transformed into areas for guests to relax, have a drink, and observe the main floor. The hotel owners wanted to embrace their historic building’s past, as is evident by the vestiges of jail cells in their upscale restaurant and the massive black tiered chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.
I interviewed Laverty on the second floor “catwalk”, where he was trying to quickly eat lunch. He was incredibly charming and kind, apologizing and offering me the second half of his sandwich and some sweet potato fries. Laverty’s friendly demeanor made it apparent that I was interviewing the right man, because it reminded me of the light-hearted, sweet tone of his film.
One could expect Laverty to be a bit more snobbish with an impressive resume like his. Born in Calcutta, India, to an Irish mother and a Scottish father, he has a degree in both philosophy and law, and was a practicing lawyer in Glasgow. In the mid-eighties, Laverty lived in Central America and worked for a Nicaraguan rights organization. He’s written nine full-length feature films and two shorts, most of which have been a collaboration with legendary director Ken Loach (including this film). Laverty has won Best Original Screenplay at Cannes (Sweet Sixteen) and at Venice Film Festival (It’s a Free World). His new film, The Angels’ Share, won the Jury Prize at Cannes this past year.
In the film, newcomer Paul Brannigan stars as Robbie Emmerson, a young man from Glasgow with a prison record, who is charged with 300 hours of community payback (the Scottish form of community service) after he finds himself in yet another violent brawl. The one bright spot in Robbie’s life is his loyal girlfriend, Leonie, who is pregnant with their child. After Robbie holds his son in his hands for the first time, he vows that he will turn his life around and make sure that his son’s life will be better than his own.
The characters in the film have a very rhythmic style of speech, filled with plenty of swears and creative insults. Laverty told me that growing up around Glasgow, he became accustomed to this type of language. According to him, the dialogue in the movie was even a little bit lighter on the swearing than is common in Glasgow. Thankfully, the actors thick Scottish brogues are accompanied by subtitles, so every playful creative insult lobbed at one another is easy to understand.
An opportunity for a new beginning reveals itself after Robbie’s social worker, Harry (John Henshaw) takes his charges on a tour of a whiskey distillery. It is here that we learn about the “angels’ share” – the considerable percentage of each cask of whiskey that evaporates before it’s consumed. Distillery owners like to imagine that the angels are enjoying the escaped spirits – certainly a comforting way to make peace with the lost profit. As to the whiskey-making process, Laverty admitted he hadn’t had much prior knowledge. He joked that it was a horrible chore to tour distilleries in the Scottish countryside and partake in gourmet tastings. It’s clear that Laverty sees the consumption and production of whiskey as primarily the pastime of the wealthy, pointing out that most young people in Scotland have never even tasted one of their countries most prominent exports.
At the distillery, Robbie’s group is told about a newly discovered cask, worth upwards of a million dollars. Robbie and his friends – fellow petty criminals Albert, Mo, and Rhino – decide to try and steal some of the prized whiskey, donning kilts to appear less suspicious. Robbie believes that this final illegal act will finally present his family with a solution to get them out of their tough Glasgow neighborhood.
It is at this halfway point of the film, that it abruptly transitions from dark, working class drama, to light-hearted caper comedy. You almost forget that Robbie is the same guy who, during a cocaine-haze, beat an innocent man so violently he lost sight in one eye. Loach is well-known for his films depicting working class struggles, and the first half of the film is so bleak and gritty that you don’t really expect these characters to ever rise above their current situation (or even crack a smile). Once the friends make the decision to steal the whiskey, the entire tone changes. After that, no mention is made of their troubles with the law or their seemingly dim futures. But the second half of the movie is so cheerful and clever that you don’t notice or care that it’s completely switched gears. That is, until the entire film ends, and although you enjoyed it, you still want to see how the Robbie from the first half of the movie turned out.
Laverty and Loach have collaborated on many films about the working class, a topic that Scottish and British filmmakers seem especially entranced with. When asked why he thought the United Kingdom was so talented at producing films of this nature, he said that there really isn’t one defining reason, but he thinks it simply comes down to a question of taste. Most filmmakers in the United Kingdom are more invested in the story than in possible profits. They want to tell stories that haven’t been told. He said that big production companies (like those in L.A.) glorify wealth, premiering films about doctors and lawyers. Their bottom line is the money. Laverty made it clear that this wasn’t a judgment, just an observation that the two groups seem to have different end goals. He also said that he’s drawn to these types of projects because he enjoys telling stories from the viewpoint of the younger generation. They can say profound things when given the opportunity.
As to The Angels’ Share, this reviewer wishes that the young people had more to say. The social message of the film was clear, but it was on a broader level rather than a personal one. Albert, Mo, and Rhino never have their background stories explored, despite the almost two hours that we spend with them. Mo’s kleptomania and Albert’s alcoholism remain mysteries. Instead, they serve as the comic relief, the good old mates who support Robbie in his quest for a brighter future. Robbie, Albert, Mo, and Rhino have no expectations of one another other. They realize that they’re all screw-ups, and they’re comfortable with that. Because at least they’re not judging one another, like the rest of the world is constantly doing. But despite the laughter concerning their bleak situation, Albert, Mo, and Rhino help Robbie because they’re desperately hoping that their plan will succeed. And if Robbie can get out of Glasgow, maybe they can too.
Despite the shortfalls of The Angels’ Share, Paul Laverty and Ken Loach have crafted a film that is filled to the cask with hope and Scottish charm. The dialogue is clever, the heist is brilliant, and the cast is fresh-faced and talented. And despite your feelings concerning alcohol, by the end of the film I guarantee you’ll want a cup of that priceless amber whiskey
Article by Liz Isenberg