In wily British director Ken Loach's spirited caper "The Angels' Share," an ex-con and new dad who wants to turn over a new leaf discovers that he has a connoisseur's taste for whisky.


You'll have to wait until it ends to see whether crime pays in Ken Loach's spirited caper "The Angels' Share." But it's a testament to the veteran British filmmaker's wily ways - and to his strong social (and socialist) conscience - that you'll find yourself rooting for his band of underclass Glaswegians as they set out to pull off a most improbable heist.

More playful than we've come to expect from Loach (though even his most dead-earnest work can show biting humor), "The Angels' Share" begins in a Glasgow courtroom, where Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a young ex-con, narrowly escapes another prison sentence for his latest burst of violence. Instead, he must do community service, overseen by the big, and big-hearted, Harry (John Henshaw). Harry is a lover of whisky, it turns out, and after squiring his motley troop of ne'er-do-wells around town, cleaning up graveyards and repainting a community center, he takes them on a surprise visit to a distillery.

And it is there that Robbie, a keen lad and a new dad - his girlfriend, Leonie (Siobhan Reilly), has just become a mum - discovers a taste for whisky. Quite a refined taste, actually, as he picks out notes of this and hints of that, sniffing and sipping with a connoisseur's aplomb.

And when he hears about the auction of a rare cask of whisky, the Malt Mill, expected to bring a cool million or more, an idea is born. Robbie wants to turn over a new leaf, but no one wants to give him a job. His sorry cohorts on the community service crew - the drunken clown Albert (Gary Maitland), the punky klepto Mo (Jasmin Riggins) and the redheaded Rhino (William Ruane) - are similarly unemployed, and arguably unemployable. And so they hatch a plan, the cleverness of which surprises even themselves.

"The Angels' Share" -which comes subtitled, the better to follow the slangy burrs - is a lark, but it's a serious-minded lark, addressing issues of class and culture, the haves and have-nots. There's a powerful scene before Robbie and company head to the Highlands to carry out their scheme when he is required to meet with the victim of one of his crimes - a terrible beating that has left the man seated across from him with a list of injuries. As the victim recounts the attack, Robbie sits there, tearing up, determined never to hurt another person.

Can he do it? Can he and Leonie raise a child? Can that cask of Malt Mill be liberated from the elite snifter-swillers assembled in the Scottish countryside?

I recommend that you find out.


The Angels' Share

*** 1/2

• Director: Ken Loach.

• Cast: Paul Brannigan, John Henshaw, Gary Maitland and Siobhan Reilly. Distributed by IFC Films.

• Running time: 106 minutes.