Ken Loach, the feisty, 76-year-old, left-leaning British director whose latest film, “The Angels’ Share,” opens Friday in Boston, released a statement on April 8 following the death of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. He described her as “the most divisive and destructive prime minister of modern times.” Then he added: “How should we honor her? Let’s privatise her funeral. Put it out to competitive tender and accept the cheapest bid. It’s what she would have wanted.”
His suggestion was not heeded — Thatcher’s state-sponsored funeral cost the British taxpayers $15 million. To be fair, Loach also might have extended his gratitude to Thatcher for providing him material for a fair share of the films he has made over a five-decade-long career, among them such classics of socially conscious cinema as “Kes” (1969), “Raining Stones” (1991), and “My Name Is Joe” (1998). “The Angels’ Share” is the latest in this lineage, drawing inspiration from the lingering aftermath of Thatcher’s draconian economic policies of the early 1980s.
Speaking over the phone from London last month, Loach discussed the origins of the new movie, which is about a group of disaffected Glasgow youths who, prompted by their resourceful leader, Robbie, come up with a scheme to purloin bottles of a priceless Scotch whiskey. “It started with the million unemployed kids [in Britain] who have no work and no prospect of a decent future,” he said. “And we wanted to do something that had a smile on its face because when you meet these kids in this situation they’re quite funny. And then Paul Laverty [Loach’s longtime collaborator and screenwriter] had the idea of engaging them in whiskey because whiskey is the tourist version of Scotland, along with the Highlands and the kilts and the heather and the bagpipes and all the rest.”
Two weeks ago at the Liberty Hotel, Laverty agreed that both he and Loach thought a lighter touch would work best despite the grim subject.
“The film we did before this [“Route Irish”] was a very tough, uncompromising film set in Iraq about mercenaries coming back to Liverpool,” he said. “It was a brutal tragedy. With this film we wanted to touch on a different tone. Something that would keep us sane. We wanted to take a group of kids and see the world through their eyes.”
That world consists of typical Loach themes: brutality, drunkenness, oppression, and desperation. But it also has its share of tenderness and slapstick. There is even a fart joke, a first in a
Loach movie. Laverty doesn’t think that levity dilutes the seriousness of the subject. “I always find it strange when people make films about people in marginal communities and it emphasizes the misery,” he said. “That hasn’t been my experience. These people are full of mischief and fun. They’re angry and frustrated but you see talent and wit all around you. We wanted to capture a sense of the waste of such talent. So that became the tone of the film.”
To that purpose Laverty did research in the poorer communities of his native Glasgow. There he came across Paul Brannigan, who ended up being cast as Robbie. Brannigan had much in common with his character, who is at first a hot-tempered young parolee who experiences a change of attitude when he learns his girlfriend is pregnant.
“Paul had just been released from prison and he was determined to change his life around,” Laverty said. “I noticed how good he was with people. He was smart. He had a steadiness I liked. And people held him in great respect. So I just made a mental note that when Ken came for the casting he should see Paul. It was a long story but eventually Paul got the part.”
In the film a sympathetic social worker takes Robbie and his friends on a trip to the Highlands to visit a distillery. There they catch a glimpse of an unknown world of refinement and luxury, where a bottle of whiskey can be bought for a hundred thousand pounds, a world that Robbie discovers he has a distinct taste for — literally. It turns out that he has the palate of a connoisseur, able to detect minute differences in the taste and aroma of Scotch, a talent that comes in handy in their heist.
Loach and Laverty both saw a sly metaphor in the film’s premise, especially in the contrast between the working-class Glasgow youths and the haughty millionaires who invest in this quintessential Scottish product. They agreed that the title, which is a term referring to the tiny percentage of whiskey that disappears during the aging process, might be a play on the so-called “trickle-down theory” of economics advanced by Thatcher during her years in office.
“The direct opposite of so much poverty is the absurdity of this expensive whiskey,” Loach said. “The price bears no relationship to its taste because it’s just a collector’s item. So we thought we could make a point of that by putting the kids into that world.”
Despite underscoring the brute facts of class conflict, the film nonetheless sustains an optimistic, fairy-tale quality. After half a century of uncompromising exposés of injustice and suffering, might Loach, like an 18-year-old Glenmorangie, be getting mellow with age? “The way it works is you get angrier rather than more mellow,” he said. “Especially when you see what’s happening with the economy and its consequences on people.”
Laverty, likewise, regards the future with uncertainty. It’s a future he sees rooted in the mistakes of the past. “The grandparents of Robbie would have had their communities devastated by the privatizations and destruction of the manufacturing industry in Scotland under Thatcher,” he said. “Three generations later the ill effects continue. I think we’re faced with great existential challenges if we’re going to have a proper functioning democracy.”
Can films help us meet that existential challenge? In the early 1980s, before he formed his partnership with Loach, Laverty worked as a lawyer in Nicaragua battling human rights abuses (his first film with Loach, “Carla’s Song,” in 1996 was based on Laverty’s experiences in Central America). Did he think that he made the right choice giving up that kind of activism to make movies?
“I was sick of writing human rights reports and journalistic works on Nicaragua,” he explained. “There comes a point when you feel like you’re banging your head against a brick wall and I wanted to explore a new way to touch upon what I’d been a witness to. Film offers ways to understand the world from different points of view. It can raise questions in people’s minds. But the big question is what do people do afterwards?”
Loach feels the same. “It’s nothing you can quantify,” he said. “Films can’t do much. They only work if there’s a movement you can tap into that has the same ideas you put in the film.”
Loach is putting some of those ideas into his newest project, “The Spirit of ’45.” “It’s an archival documentary about the origins of the welfare state in Britain after the war,” he said. “It was a time when people had a much greater sense of collective responsibility. It was a great time and so we thought this was the right moment to remember it.”
Did he think that this spirit might ever return?
“I think so,” he said. “Because things are real crap now, and if we don’t, we’ll be in real trouble.”