Cinema Review: The Angels’ Share

DIR: Ken Loach • WRI: Paul Laverty • PRO: Rebecca O’Brien • DOP: Dariusz Wolski • ED: Jonathan Morris • DES: Fergus Clegg • Cast: Roger Allam, Daniel Portman, John Henshaw, William Ruane

Throughout his long career, which began with Poor Cow all the way back in 1967, Ken Loach has proven himself adept at coaxing strong performances from non-professional actors. With The Angels ‘Share, Loach has once again unearthed a few rare gems among his mainly amateur cast, and the resulting film is a triumphant vehicle for the charisma and wit of these young actors. This year at Cannes, the hopes of British success at the festival lay almost entirely on this film’s modestly-budgeted shoulders, and with previous success with My Name is Joe and The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Loach could afford to be confident. Sure enough the film came away with the Special Jury Prize, losing out on the Palme d’Or to Michael Haneke’s Love. However, the venerable Loach would have to admit that the credit for this victory must go to his excellent cast, who have managed to overcome a sometimes uneven script to deliver a film that is one of this director’s most enjoyable in years.

 

As with My Name is Joe and Sweet Sixteen, Loach sets his story in working-class Scotland, this time in the disadvantaged council estates of Glasgow. Robbie (Paul Brannigan) has just become a Dad and is determined to turn over a new leaf after narrowly avoiding a prison sentence for a violent assault. He meets a kindly community worker, played by John Henshaw, who instills in Robbie and his work-shy mates a love of fine Scotch whiskey after a community service group visit to a distillery. After learning of the lucrative rewards to be made in selling rare whiskeys, Robbie and his trio of scallywag friends (Jasmin Miller, William Ruane and the hilarious Gary Maitland) cook up a plan to steal into a Highland distillery to pull off the mother of all rare scotch heists. Here, Loach’s film takes an abrupt turn from his customary gritty social realism to gently zany caper movie. The result gives the film an uneven feel, as the story of Robbie, his girlfriend and baby son is left behind and wanders off into madcap heist territory. Fortunately for Loach, his non-professional cast have such a natural flair for comedy that the audience simply doesn’t care, as we end up rooting for this rag-tag bunch to succeed in their audaciously daft mission.

 

The joys of profane working-class humour are never far from the surface in Loach’s films, but in The Angels ‘Share our protagonist’s clowning and wise-cracking is allowed to come to the forefront. You get the feeling that a professional cast would have nowhere near the same feel for these characters and their spiky humour – only these naturally talented and hugely charismatic non-professionals could believably convey these character’s streetwise cleverness and good-humoured optimism in the face of adversity. Thanks to their excellent performances, (especially those of Brannigan and Maitland, who’s Albert is a great comic creation) Loach’s film is saved from the slightly awkward and cliched nature of its script to become one of his most refreshingly funny and effervescent films.

Martin Cusack

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
The Angels’ Share is released on 1st June 2012


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Route Irish

Route Irish


Dir: Ken Loach • WRI: Paul Laverty • PRO: Rebecca O’Brien • DOP: Chris Menges • ED: Jonathan Morris • DES: Fergus Clegg • CAST: Stephen Lord, John Bishop, Najwa Nimri

When Ken Loach is mentioned, ideas of realism, grit, drama and, above all, fearless filmmaking are conjured. Loach’s last film, 2009’s beautifully resonant Looking for Eric, focused on the personal changes affected by a man taking control of his life, lending insight into a damaged psyche and a fractured nationality. Route Irish continues on this bent, having in its sights the societal changes occurring as a result of Britain’s ongoing involvement in Iraq, focusing, as is usual with Loach, on the personal struggle. For this director, it is the people that matter, and there is so much depth to parts of the movie that it is a huge disappointment to find that, as a whole, it just does not work.

Often criticised for his views on Britain, Loach nonetheless presents an honest portrayal – warts and all – of a nation in crisis and a society constantly on the brink of implosion. The story, here, revolves around Fergus (Mark Womack) and his best friend Frankie (comedian John Bishop), two Liverpudlian proletariats who employ themselves in the protection of contractors engaged in ‘rebuilding’ Iraq. It is Fergus, an ex-army hard-head, who convinces his childhood friend to join him in this dangerous land, where there is money to be made for two ex-soldiers. It ends badly for Frankie, who is killed on the infamous, and titular, ‘Route Irish’, known as the most dangerous road in Baghdad. The majority of the film takes place in Liverpool, as Fergus attempts to piece together events leading to Frankie’s death in Iraq, while he languished drunk in a police cell in England. Guilt, of course, is a leading factor in Fergus’ bull-headed determination to discover the truth, where all is not as it seems, and a massacred Iraqi family provides a link to some unsavoury elements of their jobs as hired gunmen.

The acting is sporadically fantastic, but mostly just passable – although, John Bishop surprises as a likeable and human Frankie, making his death that bit more accessible to the audience. However, the lingering feeling is that Frankie’s death is a little too important in the face of the actual tragedy of both these men profiting from a ludicrous situation in Iraq. An Iraqi musician, (played by Tarib Rasool), helps Fergus piece together some clues from Frankie’s death, and provides some righteous anger in the face of the underlying Iraqi situation, but his efforts end in retribution and fear. Frankie’s wife, (Andrea Lowe), provides the face of the British public – never questioning his job, and keeping a distance from the idea of her husband as a killer in a foreign land.

There is tragedy to be had in many set-ups: some flashback shots of Baghdad under siege, children caught in crossfire; the effect of Frankie’s death on his wife; the entanglement of Fergus and Frankie’s intense friendship. All in all, however, the film plays more like a revenge thriller than an emotive social document – losing a lot of its power, and all of its resonance, in the process. Explosions and gunfire, water-boarding torture scenes and Mel-Gibsonesque reprisals leave the personal tragedies to timidly murmur in the background – certainly not something expected from an eminently realistic director. In the end, the movie plods where it should gallop, and whispers when it should shout. It fails to adequately represent the tragedy of capitalist interest in Iraq, the massacre of innocents, or the more fundamental heartbreak of losing a best friend. Whilst not a total write-off, we have come to expect far more from Loach, and as such Route Irish stands as a disappointing turn from a director that can do far better.

Sarah Griffin

Rated 16 (see IFCO website for details)

Route Irish is released on 18th March 2011

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FqtAwJs0uAw[/youtube]

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Looking For Eric

Looking For Eric
DIR: Ken Loach • WRI: Paul Laverty • PRO: Rebecca O’Brien • DOP: Barry Ackroyd • DES: Fergus Clegg • CAST: Steve Evets, Stephanie Bishop, Gerard Kearns, John Henshaw, Eric Cantona

The history of football on film is somewhat sketchy. For every hit – such as The Damned United, or the sheer insanity of Escape To Victory (a truly unique celluloid occasion in which Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, Pelé and John Huston somehow ended up working together) – there are dozens of terrible attempts to capture the beautiful game on film. Happily, Looking for Eric is a terrific film, the enjoyment of which is only slightly increased by a knowledge of soccer. Like all great sports movies, however, the key is that it actually isn’t about sport at all. In fact, it’s not even about Eric Cantona, although the great man’s charming and amusing appearances do provide the impetus for the story. Looking For Eric is, above all things, a Ken Loach film. In other words, it’s about humanity.

The Eric of the title is not Cantona, but Eric Bishop, the put-upon postal worker hero of the film. Depressed and dealing with the emotional baggage of two failed marriages, Eric is also trying to raise two teenage stepsons and offer support to his own daughter as she finishes college. Eric is dealing with very adult problems while still lost in the mindset of his youth; he agonises over his decision to walk out on his young wife years earlier, and the walls of his bedroom are adorned with Man United memorabilia and posters, the centre of which is a massive Cantona poster. It’s while staring at this poster over a spliff one night that Eric begins receiving imaginary life coaching from King Eric himself.

Initially, Looking For Eric plays like a typical British romcom, albeit an especially good one with a fine ear for realistic dialogue. Steve Evets makes for a likeable, believable lead, and he’s surrounded by a superbly detailed suburbia, from the clutter that fills his house to the pub he frequents with his friends. Loach’s political angle is somewhat sidelined, his socialist views only really given voice in a scene where fans discuss the commercialisation of football. The director seems as aware as anyone else of the irony that the worlds biggest, most corporate football club are taking a central role in his first film on the subject, but he never lets these opinions interfere with his story and characters. Eric’s hero worship seems to exist solely as a part of his state of arrested development; he hasn’t been to a match in years, and there is little mention made of the contemporary United line-up. Even his jersey is a mid-1990s vintage. Yet it’s by re-evaluating his past that he begins to reinvent his present, driven by the philosophies of his hero. It’s witty, engaging stuff, even if you have no idea who Cantona is.

The film becomes even more fascinating, however, when Loach suddenly takes the film down a more serious route. Without giving anything away, the 72-year old auteur’s filmmaking remains incredibly sprightly; one scene is as shocking and heart-stopping as anything a younger British filmmaker might serve up, and the final third of the film lets him tackle the issues facing today’s youth with surprising credibility and nuance. This emotional twist, while exhilarating, means that the comic set-piece that forms the climax of the film feels a little underwhelming. Nonetheless, Looking for Eric remains a fine piece of comedy drama, one that once again confirms Loach as one of Britain’s most interesting and versatile independent filmmakers.

Scott Townsend
(See biog here)

Rated 15a (see IFCO website for details)
Looking For Eric
is released on 12th June 2009
Looking For Eric – Official Website

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