Whisky heist comedy examines plight of despairing youth

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The challenges facing working people make eye-opening subjects for the films of British director Ken Loach and his screenwriter Paul Laverty. And that's unusual in the box-office driven world of modern movies.

Their latest film, "The Angels' Share" opens in the Twin Cities this weekend. It's a comedy about young criminals trying to steal very rare single malt scotch.

Laverty is a wiry man whose voice immediately betrays him as a native of Glasgow in Scotland. Together, he and Loach have made 10 movies. They agree on a topic and then Laverty goes off to research and write. "The Angels' Share" is a comedy, but based on a serious problem.

"I suppose I was kind of fascinated by the amount of young people I met who just look at the future and will probably not have significant work in their lives," Laverty said.

That's how he came to write the story of Robbie, a violent young-offender in "The Angels' Share." Not long after getting out of prison, Robbie faces a Glasgow judge once again after getting into a street fight.

"You have escaped a significant custodial sentence by the skin of your teeth," the judge says. "I sentence you to 300 hours of community payback." As the judge bangs his gavel the courtroom erupts with protests from the young men who Robbie fought.

Ken Loach and Paul Laverty
Ken Loach and Paul Laverty talk on the set of "The Angels' Share."
Image courtesy of Sundance Selects/Joss Barratt

Despite the protests in the courtroom, Robbie joins a group of similar offenders doing community service around the town to work off their debt to society. They are supervised by Harry, who sees Robbie's worth, particularly when he becomes a father. Laverty wanted to show the sobering effect of parenthood on Robbie.

"When you have a child you project into the future," Laverty said. "And you ask all the basic questions around how can I have a dignified life? How can I find work? How can I find a safe place for my kid? How can I have a family?

"That's the starting point for it. It's a kid who has had a really, really, tough background who's recently been in prison. And he wants to make a real go of his life and critically, so that his child will not have the same horrible childhood he has."

That all sounds very heavy. But "The Angels' Share" is wryly funny as Robbie and three of his new-found friends try to pull a heist of some very rare single malt scotch. They don't know much about life outside the city and the idea of going to the distillery in the country is beyond them.

"We'll probably need huskies, or even a boat depending on where it is," says Albert, who is not the sharpest saw in the shed.

That they don't look like well-heeled single malt aficionados, also poses a problem, until one of the group proposes a brilliant idea: they will all wear Scottish national dress.

"Kilts! We could wear kilts! Nobody ever bothers anybody wearing a kilt."

And off they go, wearing kilts -- and hoodies and sneakers.

The Angels' Share
The Angels' Share gang: Jasmin Riggins (Mo), left, William Ruane (Rhino), Paul Brannigan (Robbie), Gary Maitland (Albert).
Image courtesy of Sundance Selects/Joss Barratt

Whisky just adds a layer to the story, Laverty said.

"It's projected as the sophisticated drink of the rich and the powerful: sometimes bottles being sold for as much as £100,000, which is just mind-boggling," Laverty said. "And yet, at the same time, many of these kids have never tasted whisky and have never been to the beautiful parts of the west of Scotland or the north of Scotland where it is actually distilled."

The film drew a standing ovation from critics at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and crowds to the box office in the United Kingdom. Organizers of this year's Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival chose it as its opening film.

While the reception pleases Laverty, he is perhaps more delighted by the success of Paul Brannigan, who plays Robbie.

"He had never acted in his life before," Laverty said. "He couldn't even get work and he was just recently out of prison."

Laverty met Brannigan while researching the film, and had a hunch about the young man's acting potential. He arranged for Brannigan to audition for Loach.

"(Brannigan) never showed," says Laverty. "And then he never showed for the next one."

Paul Laverty
Paul Laverty has made 10 films with iconic director Ken Loach. He says their working relationship is based on Loach's broad knowledge and their shared love of soccer.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Laverty thought he had lost Brannigan, but through some detective work eventually got a phone number for him that worked.

"And I threatened him with hellfire and damnation if he didn't turn up, because I said he would regret it for the rest of his life," Laverty said.

That worked. And on the basis of his performance in "The Angel's Share" he landed the lead in "Under the Skin," a sci-fi film where he co-stars with Scarlett Johannson.

"The Angels' Share" is now opening for general audiences in the U.S.

"I hope it entertains them, and I hope it raises a few questions, and I hope it doesn't put them off malt whisky," Laverty laughs.

But as shown in "The Angels' Share," for single malt fans, that would be difficult.

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