Friday 22 November 2019

"The Amber Light" (Guardian 22/11/19)

The Amber Light ****
Dir: Adam Park. Documentary with: Dave Broom, Ian Rankin, Alasdair Gray, Ryan Chetiyawardana. 93 mins. 12A

Adam Park’s documentary opens with a title-card acknowledgement that “the story of whisky is a familiar one” before carving out its own distinct and distinctly engaging niche. It’s less interested in the business side of whisky than its social aspect: how this liquid gold has been drunk through the ages.

To this end, Park joins the whisky scholar Dave Broom on a tour of Scotland, and those sites where the drink was originated, developed, reclaimed and knocked back. Invariably – this having clearly been one of documentary’s more enjoyable shoots – their itinerary involves Broom taking a dram or two himself. The title refers to the impeccably hip watering hole the film concludes in, but also to the warm, convivial glow radiating out from the screen.

Park and Broom cover a lot of ground at a distiller’s measured pace. Opening on the Isle of Islay, with an immensely watchable primer on peatcutting, they cook up medicinal whisky in woodland and visit East Fife’s new microbrewery hotspot between trips inland to city pubs for rendezvous with such eminent thinkers and drinkers as Ian Rankin and Alasdair Gray.

This quasi-magazine show treatment – call it The One More Show – permits Park and Broom multiple lines of approach to the roots of Scottish drinking culture: whisky as a bringer of warmth, and a means of reconnecting with the land. It also permits some re-examination of stereotypes. As Rankin euphemistically observes, “Sometimes [whisky] brings out the worst in you”, providing the film’s own “drink responsibly” disclaimer.

The broad remit means there are places where it might seem wobbly or fuzzy-headed: I wasn’t sure Broom’s musician pals brought much to the table, beyond drinking songs that admittedly break up the talk. Yet Dan Dennison’s cinematography keeps landing on the kind of satisfying, weathered textures you’d want from any glass of Glenlivet, much as Park and Broom keep coaxing out useful insights: Gray raises the suggestion that Scotland remains a series of islands squashed together into co-existence, which may be worth considering as the independence debate grows louder.

Extremely good company – not unlike snuggling into a pub nook with passionate, well-lubricated conversationalists – it’s a film made for nippy late-November afternoons. 

The Amber Light opens in selected cinemas from today.

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