Responding to the death of Margaret Thatcher earlier this week, film director Ken Loach told The Guardian: "Mass unemployment, factory closures, communities destroyed — this is her legacy. She was a fighter, and her enemy was the British working class."
Loach speaks from experience: He began his tireless chronicling of the plight of Britain's underclass long before Thatcher came to power, and he didn't go much easier on Labour governments before or after her tenure as a Tory prime minister. He might, in fact, have thanked the Iron Lady for providing him with several decades' worth of material for the social-realist dramas that have won him prize after prize in Europe.
Loach has never made a secret of his view that Thatcher's methodical gutting of welfare-state provisions and union protections have brought successive generations of workers to their knees. And in the United States, the proudly socialist filmmaker has his admirers among critics.
But American moviegoers — many of whom are made nervous by the very mention of the word "class" — have mostly greeted his films with indifference or incomprehension, compounded by frustration at not being able to decode the pungent regional dialects spoken by his defiantly lumpen heroes (and, less often, heroines).
These are not the steadily employed working stiffs of Mike Leigh's movies. Loach speaks for the chronically unemployed, the desperately poor and crime-prone. Left behind in the rush to a high-tech economy and cast adrift by escalating cuts to social services, these are the men and women who were derided by conservatives as "benefits claimants."
At his worst, Loach can be a scold, ever ready to point a relentlessly accusatory finger at repressive agents of the "system," whose sole reason for being, at least in his movies, is to keep the underdog down. And like many middle-class defenders of the working poor, Loach often assumes that the working classes walk around being working class all day.
Which may be why his earnest dramas (Ladybird Ladybird or Land and Freedom) tend to be joyless and programmatic, while his best — Riff-Raff, Raining Stones, Sweet Sixteen — come dressed as boisterous comedies about people with rich inner lives.
Loach's longtime screenwriter Paul Laverty, a Scot with a precise ear for the profane wit and rhythms of working-class speech, has been known to spring Loach from his vicar-ish solemnity. And while their latest collaboration, The Angels' Share, plays against the usual backdrop of grinding poverty and despair, the movie quickly devolves into a larky, wishful caper that dares to imagine redemption as a group adventure into a world of sensual pleasure ordinarily reserved for the super-rich.
Like many characters from the Loach-Laverty lab, Robbie (played by the charismatic Paul Brannigan, a local community worker who's never acted before) is a trainee thug whose problems reach beyond chronic unemployment to his horrible childhood in Glasgow's projects. Robbie's uncontrolled rage has earned him several hundred hours of community service — but he's also determined to provide his newborn son with a better start in life than his own.
A visit to a whiskey distillery turns up a talent Robbie never knew he had: a great nose for good liquor. A few brazenly contrived plot twists and some locker-room humor later (kilts and missing underwear are involved), Robbie and a posse of similarly downtrodden, foul-mouthed sidekicks take to the road, through a beautiful Scottish countryside they've never seen, for a heist as improbable as it is enjoyable to those who like to see the ruling class outfoxed. Unless you hang out with Glaswegians — Shrek and Brave don't count — you'll need the subtitles.
If The Angels' Share takes aim at the multimillion-dollar brown-booze industry and the pretentious flim-flam of the liquor-tasting set, it's also graphically observant about the ease with which young men starved of opportunities can turn their energies inward to destroying themselves and one another.
But Loach is mellower and more merciful than he's sometimes been toward those who staff the agencies of social control. The barrel may be rotten, but sometimes all it takes is a good apple to offer a break to the hitherto luckless. Spared a jail term by a compassionate magistrate, Robbie gets his big lift from his community-service supervisor, Harry (John Henshaw), an older man who's suffered much himself and grabs at the chance to act in loco parentis.
A connoisseur of good whiskey — and, more crucially, of human potential — Harry steps in to guide Robbie toward finally getting his own "angel's share" of the world's bounty. Leaving this improbably feel-good movie, you'll wish Robbie all the luck in the world, and the mentors to go with it.