At a moment when it seems like pro-market ideology is unstoppable (it continues today as if the crash of 2008 and the bank bailouts never happened), and the left appears to have no alternatives to capitalist realism, Ken Loach, one of the leading socialist directors of the past 30 years, makes a film that is so far from reality that it can only be described as a fairy tale.
The film is by no means bad—Loach's direction of characters (a group of Glaswegian petty criminals who are sentenced to community service) and subject matter (how this group finds hope in learning about the production and culture of high-end whiskey) is masterful. Yes, petty criminals often end up doing community service; yes, petty criminals can learn a new skill that improves their chances on the job market; but no, a petty criminal who lacks prior experience in whiskey making, tasting, and sniffing will not be able to turn the whole heavily financed, whiskey-loving world upside down with a great idea that just popped into his head. This is pure fantasy.
The film's main character, a thug named Robbie (Paul Brannigan), is realistic in the sense that he has no future, has no past, and has knocked up a young woman named Leonie (Siobhan Reilly), who was daft enough to fuck him without a condom. Socially speaking, Robbie is just damaged goods and should be locked up. He can barely control himself. His anger has no direction. He gets into fights for no reason at all—we learn that he once beat up some poor guy who happened to make the wrong turn at the wrong moment in the wrong neighborhood (the mistake cost him the sight of one eye). Leonie's uncles rightly hate Robbie's guts, as does her father. Her uncles want to use violence to get him out of town; her father, who is a kind of ghetto baron, wants to use money. But Robbie will not go. Why? Because the kindness of his new friend—the man supervising his community service, Harry (John Henshaw)—has made him rethink his life and the direction it is heading (prison or the grave). Robbie is beginning to believe that underneath all of the thick layers of beastliness and meanness, there is a warm, human something in him. This is the point where the movie leaves reality and enters fantasy.
The moment we fully exit reality and enter the fantasy is when Harry takes Robbie and the other petty criminals to a whiskey distillery. Their tour guide is a bouncy and curvy young woman who is filled with all sorts of fun facts and stories about whiskey production. One story involves "the angels' share," which is the small portion of whiskey in a barrel that vanishes while aging. The windows in the distillery are tall and filled with light; we are in the world of spells and fairies. The voluptuous guide is only missing a pair of diaphanous wings. As for the head of the distillery, he may as well be a wizard. The rest of the film drifts further and further away from reality and ends like a white balloon diminishing in the blue of a clear sky.
What is going on here? Why did a great socialist realist make a film like this? I think the answer will be found with the help of two other films: Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre (2011). In Le Havre, poor, working-class white Europeans magically forget their deep and ancient prejudices and band together (literally) to help illegal immigrants from black Africa. In Slumdog Millionaire, a young man from one of the worst slums in the world magically knows all of the answers on a popular game show. In The Angels' Share, a Glasgow street punk magically becomes a more sophisticated connoisseur in a few weeks than rich men who've been in the business for decades.
This pattern is telling us something about the state of the left. It seems we no longer want to confront capitalist realism with socialist realism. We feel it is a losing battle. And so we have decided to exchange politics of the real for politics that are (as one paper, which criticized Alain Badiou's dreamy Marxism as too divorced from economic realities, put it) "tantamount to an act of levitation."