There are those who maintain that Ken Loach keeps making the same film, and then there is the counter-argument that the social problems Loach's work continues to address - chiefly those of crime and poverty amongst the working-classes - have never really gone away. (And are only apt to worsen in these financially straitened times.) It is true that Loach has settled into something of a groove in recent times, reliably turning out a film every year or so, with the support of regular collaborators (screenwriter Paul Laverty first among equals) and solid, long-established production and fan bases. After 2010's furious Route Irish, which threw a lot of punches without ever quite landing any, Loach's latest The Angels' Share feels like a return to the territory of 2009's Looking for Eric: this is a summery yet pointed crowdpleaser about a minibus of young Glaswegian offenders who discover renewed purpose in life while on a community restoration trip to a nearby distillery. Business as usual, perhaps: as the old maxim has it, if it's blokes on a coach, it's got to be Loach.
Certainly, the new film's protagonist - Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a teenage father-to-be caught up in a violent family feud that has left him facing an assault charge - moves in a guarded fashion comparable to that of Liam, the hero of 2002's Loach/Laverty team-up Sweet Sixteen; there are lots of these kids out there, after all, no matter that Robbie, for his part, gradually learns to put his nose for trouble to more constructive use. Yet - as signalled by the midfilm arrival of a second bus, full of nuns - there are new notes and elements here to be savoured, alongside the familiar. Loach's production design (and location scouting) remains as rigorous as ever: as it's important the crockery and costumes in an episode of Downton are just so, to preserve the illusion of quality, so it's important to this director that his characters inhabit a space where the windows of front doors are cracked and the wallpaper hangs from the walls, the better to maintain the sense of reality. Similarly, there are the subtle directorial emphases - starting with the casting of non-professionals whose choices and rhythms are their own - that underline the point that these are meant as individuals in the real world, rather than merely characters in a movie.
If The Angels' Share were a softer film, it would leave out the conciliation sequence in which Robbie is confronted by the victim of his assault (and omit altogether the flashback that reveals him to be unequivocally the instigator of the attack), and set us to thinking of him in terms of a loveable rogue. Loach, however, wants us to see this (terrifying credible) aggression in order for us to understand how it - and the aggression of kids like Robbie - might be better channeled. In Angels, it's through the arcane, artisan activity of whisky tasting, which here serves as a rather more refined form of the boozing these lads and lassies are wont to do, as well as a conduit for them to connect with the Scottish heritage they've hitherto been clueless to.
The director's way with performers - his ability to get them to serve a common cause, in a variety of ways - continues to impress. There are tiny, almost throwaway moments that, whether scripted or improvised, go eloquently towards character: a piqued Robbie kicking over a motorbike in the street, one of his cohorts' enraged attempts to get a remote control to work. (However rich or poor you are, we've all been there.) Of the novices, Brannigan displays that cheering mix of spikiness (the scar on the face, the gel in the hair) and rootable tenacity previously observed in Sweet Sixteen's Martin Compston; his Robbie is properly scrappy, in both the best and worst applications of that term.
Comic duties are amply fulfilled by Gary Maitland's Albert, a spud-like presence forever one or two beats behind the action, though it's a particular joy that Loach should have crossed paths with John Henshaw (TV's Early Doors), a performer of immense warmth who stands partway between the straight acting tradition and the off-the-cuff stand-ups the filmmaker has often employed in prominent roles. It's through Henshaw - cast as the restoration scheme's general factotum - that Loach and Laverty best make their points about the importance of mentoring in lives such as these; the emotional charge of the film's final scenes resides almost entirely in the actor's very capable hands.
So entirely of this world are these individuals that it comes as a jolt when Roger Allam - a slicker, more polished presence, whether doing classical theatre or in The Thick of It - enters the film. Here, finally, really is a character in a movie - a jowly (and perhaps not coincidentally English) representative of the well-fed elite, ripe for a takedown - and Allam's entrance is the point where The Angels' Share reveals itself as nothing really more probing than a light caper for all concerned. (Compare it to the arrival of the bailiffs in Loach's magnificent Raining Stones, and it's surprising to note just how well-behaved the director's antagonists have become over the past two decades. Gentrification in action, maybe?)
The best of The Angels' Share - and there is a lot to enjoy here - happens in and around that minibus. Going against the current wave of cynically stabby urban dramas that give their underprivileged characters limited aspirations, because - hey - That's How It Is, Man (nothing to do with the lazy get-rich-quickery of their youthful, well-placed creatives), Loach and Laverty credit their misfits and delinquents with curiosity, instincts, a yen for experiences previously denied to them, while never denying their poorer decisions and wrong moves. This, ultimately, is how The Angels' Share dodges those yawn-inducing accusations of didacticism that have traditionally attached themselves to the director's work. Loach thinks the best of his characters, but he remains honest enough to know you don't lose anything - and, if anything, have only authenticity to gain - from giving these angels filthy mouths and dirty faces.
The Angels' Share opens nationwide tomorrow.