From left, Jasmin Riggins, Gary Maitland, Paul Brannigan, William Ruane… (Joss Barratt / Sixteen Films…)
After making "Route Irish," a dark 2010 drama about private security contractors who had been in Iraq, British filmmaker Ken Loach and his partner, Scottish screenwriter Paul Laverty, were searching for their next project.
"Paul will go away and start writing a few characters down, and we will decide if we want to do it," explained Loach, 76, best known for his uncompromising political and sociological dramas such as 1998's "My Name Is Joe" and 2006's "The Wind That Shakes the Barley."
Laverty told Loach about a group of young men he had met in Glasgow, Scotland, "young lads who were doing community payback, people who had escaped prison by the skin of their teeth. Here were a bunch of kids who obviously had difficult lives, but when I spent time with them there was tremendous comedy, mischief and talent."
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Laverty introduced these young men to Loach, who was pleasantly surprised to find "they don't go around looking gloomy all day. A lot of daft, funny things happen to them."
So Loach and Laverty set out to capture that quirky humor in "The Angels' Share," which opens Friday in Los Angeles. It won over audiences and critics last year at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Jury Prize. "We wanted to capture their spirit," said Loach during a recent phone interview from London.
"This story could have ended up a tragedy," added Laverty, in a separate phone interview from London. "But we wanted to explore a different tone and a different way of telling a story."
Paul Brannigan, who stars in the film, was one of those "young lads" that Laverty had met. He introduced him to Loach, who likes to work with unknowns because "they don't come with any baggage, do they?" Loach noted that Brannigan "had a difficult childhood and was homeless for a time. He was in the young offenders prison and turned his life around. He's very mature and thoughtful."
Brannigan plays Robbie, an unemployed young man with a violent streak who has grown up poor and angry in the slums of Glasgow. But he's desperate to change his life because his girlfriend has just given birth to his son.
Sentenced to community service, Robbie is befriended by three other outcasts and is taken under the wing by Harry (John Henshaw) who oversees the group. Harry takes his charges to a gathering of whiskey aficionados as a reward for their good behavior. Asked to participate in a taste test, Robbie discovers he has a "nose" for good whiskey and decides to use his newfound expertise to improve his life. (The phrase "angels' share" describes the percentage of the whiskey lost to evaporation in the aging process.)
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The film has a lighter note than most of Loach's work, but that doesn't mean the director has lost his socialist edge. "There's a million out of work between the ages of 17 and 24 who are not in education and not in training," Loach said, talking about young men like Robbie. "It's kind of a terrible future that we have offered them."
Loach has been an outspoken critic of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and that didn't end when she died Monday. In fact, Loach released a statement suggesting her funeral should be privatized — "put it out to competitive tender and accept the cheapest bid. It's what she would have wanted."
"Angels' Share's" whiskey subplot drives home the plight of the poor and unemployment. "Though whiskey is Scotland's national drink, many of these young people never tasted whiskey," said Laverty. "It's too expensive. I liked the contradiction." (In one scene Robbie and his friends attend an auction of a barrel of ultra-rare Scotch that sells for more than $1 million).
Whiskey expert Charlie MacLean, who was a script consultant and appears in the film, noted that last year a bottle of 64-year-old Macallan whiskey was sold at auction for $460,000. "It's like an artwork," MacLean said over the phone from Edinburgh, Scotland. "It's worth only what someone is prepared to pay for it.
"Scotch is the most complex spirit in the world. Scotch rewards attention and contemplation. It has a lot more baggage to it than just liquor in a bottle."
Still an outspoken political activist, Loach made headlines last summer when he decided not to attend the Turin Film Festival for the Italian premiere of the film or to accept the festival's lifetime achievement award. He refused the honor when he learned that the city's film museum had outsourced its workers to a private company.
"It was a very clear choice," said Loach of his decision. "The workers got in touch with me and said do you want to accept this award because the people who are giving it to you are cutting our wages, our jobs and sacking some people. I said, 'No, I will support you.'"
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