Ken Loach’s latest film is surely one of his best. The affectionate narrative tells the unlikely yet somehow plausible tale of four working class young Glaswegians who become experts in whiskey and who proceed to mount a heroic scam to make their fortune and their escape from lives of poverty and crime.
A deft combination of the genres of crime thriller, comedy and social realism, this a feat of film making in itself, the film is no patronising or saccharine take on the realities of life on a working class housing scheme. The film opens with an account of a horrific crime committed by our main character, Robbie, on an innocent youth. We hear details of the devastating effects of his crime on the victim and other members of his family, and here Loach gives the audience no opportunity to forgive these acts of violence or to sympathise with Robbie or to make any excuses for him in terms of the bleak backcloth to his own life.
Robbie is required to carry out community service hours, and luckily is supported by a particularly dedicated worker, Harry, who in his spare time introduces Robbie and his pals to the delights of whiskey tasting and the Whiskey Society.
As the plot develops, we are treated to feasts of comedy, as the fab four under Robbie’s leadership with Harry’s unwitting help hatch their plan to make their fortune and carry it through to its tense and thrilling climax.
On the way, Loach exposes the stark contrast between middle class and working class, without caricaturing either, through the culture clashes at Whiskey Society meetings, as well as through the sweeping cinematography of Glasgow’s housing estates vis a vis Edinburgh’s New Town and the grouse shooting countryside more familiar to the patrons of the Whiskey Society.
Throughout, the medium of whiskey, that so Scottish of commodities, which revealed the ingenuity of the island community in Whiskey Galore, is used sixty three years later to demonstrate the art and artistry of urban working class young people from a post Thatcher working class community.
The build up to the ‘heist’, the theft of a portion of the most expensive ever whiskey from its country castle store, has all the on- the-edge-of-your-seat qualities of the best of thrillers, some achievement in a film which maintains both the grit of Kes and the best of the tradition of west coast Scottish sitcom humour.
The fragility of fortune for our characters is symbolised by the accidental breakage of part of their haul as one of the Irn Bru bottles (!) used to carry it from the Highland crime scene back to Glasgow falls to the ground. The speed with which the four accept this catastrophe demonstrates their lack of illusions in life or luck, but their talents and ingenuity is also celebrated by Loach in the manner in which they forgive, accept and carry on.
Inspiring though Robbie is, he could not have led his team, or himself, to a better future without the help and support of Harry, that salt of the earth, modest, authentic good guy, who ferries his charges to various locations out of Glasgow to support their bigger journey on the road out of crime and hopelessness. In Robbie’s parting gift and tribute to him, which lends new poetry to the title of the film, in the emotional climax in the penultimate scene, Loach acknowledges the value which sincere, solid, public sector and voluntary professional support can have in helping the Robbies in our communities to break down some of the enormous barriers facing them.
In the final scene, as Robbie drives off to his new future and the other three return to ponder their next steps in Glasgow, we do not differentiate between them in our regard; Loach does not lead us to think of the only road for working class young people is out of their own communities.
What we have in this most entertaining, and at times both tragic and hilarious film, is a stark portrayal of the realities of the Con-Dem desolation in our housing estates, but the light that shines through it all is the hopes and efforts of our working class heroes.
Geraldine Gould, 8th September 2012