Ill Manors review

Ill Manors is the directorial debut of Ben Drew aka musician Plan B. Like most successful singer/rappers turned directors Drew is likely to face suspicion that his film is a vanity project, financed to indulge the whim of a bored pop star. In fact this is not his first attempt to get a film project off the ground, Drew has been using his own music videos to gain directorial experience and and Ill Manors has been funded through the Microwave scheme operated by Film London and BBC Films. This low budget funding scheme has an impressive track record of developing projects from first time filmmakers and getting them released theatrically. Previous efforts include Mum & Dad, Shifty and Freestyle. Ill Manors is clearly destined to be the most high profile film produced by the scheme to date, whether it will meet box office glory or not is another matter, as this is an extremely confrontational piece of work.

Set in the east London district of Forest Gate over the course of a few days, Ill Manors features a wide range of characters inhabiting the lower depths of the capital’s social strata. Drug addicts, pushers, pimps, prostitutes, poor estate kids, there are victims, predators, and scavengers. Several main plot strands mingle. Two young dealers with a background in the care system force a crack addict to prostitute herself around chicken and kebab shops to pay them back for a stolen phone. A young estate kid is sucked into gang life and violence. A veteran dealer finds his position in the food chain usurped by a younger man. Two teenage girls seduced by a flash ‘arry with promises of a meeting with a modelling scout find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It would fair to say that Ill Manors is far from free of the cliches of British urban drama we have all grown very tired off. Many are present and correct here. However the tone and style of the film makes this feel like a fresh tour of hell (and believe me there are horrors to be found here). Certain story lines may play out in a fashion that you might call predictable, but it is the predictability of everyday street tales destined to become cautionary poster campaigns. The compression of time adds a level of hyperreality to the film. Ben Drew has stated that many of the stories are based on events he witnessed growing up in the area, in the film they take place over what seems like a week at most. The densely plotted, multi stranded narrative, initially feels like a collection of discrete short films, but the stories dovetail together into a surprising and affecting conclusion.

Drew has also written and performed the film’s soundtrack. The music is a return to the harsher hip-hop sound of his first album as Plan B Who Needs Actions When You Got Words rather than the smooth soul sound of his breakthrough album The Defamation of Strickland Banks. Incorporated into the film are a number of music video like sequences, rather than arresting the action these are very well integrated.

There are a few notable faces among the cast, actor/rapper Riz Ahmed (Four Lions, Shifty, Centurion), Natalie Press (My Summer of Love, Red Road), Jo Hartley (This is England), among others. But beyond these few recognisable faces, Ill Manors is largely cast with unknown actors, all deliver committed and convincing performances. There are a few minor wobbles with some of the younger actors, but mostly Drew has drawn an impressive set of performances.

This is a film of restless energy and constant imagination. Visually, Drew mixes the hard edged social realism of classic Alan Clarke TV dramas like Scum, Made in Britain and The Firm with sustained sequences of visual style that pay a debt to American directors like Tarantino and especially Scorsese (there are so many references to Mean Streets and Taxi Driver that the debt is openly acknowledged by having a character riff on De Niro’s “you looking at me” speech in a bedroom with a Taxi Driver poster on the wall). There will probably be some comparisons made to Pulp Fiction due to Ill Manors multi-stranded narrative. However a more telling comparison for me would be to Irvine Welsh’s fiction, especially Trainspotting and its subsequent Danny Boyle/John Hodge film adaptation. Like Danny Boyle, Drew inserts sequences of showy cinematic and editing technique that break from the conventions of realism. Boyle’s film filed the sharp edges off Welsh’s novel somewhat in the interests of being commercial. Ill Manors is closer to Trainspotting the novel in its nihilism and bleakness. Very little light penetrates its world.

It isn’t perfect. Ill Manors has a little bit of first film syndrome. Drew has clearly been storing up ideas for cool sequences, and given the opportunity he wants to get them all on film. Sometimes this means that Ill Manors is a little overheated. Also the film is a tad too long and very, very bleak. Danny Boyle or Shane Meadows manage to create characters the audience can feel affection for, but there really isn’t anyone to root for in Ill Manors. It’s clear that Riz Ahmed’s character is supposed to fulfil the audience identification role, but after watching him stand on the sidelines as his best friend brutally prostitutes a young woman it’s very hard to feel a whole lot of empathy for his plight. There are moments of humour, but few and pitched very dark indeed. This isn’t going to be a film for a mass audience, it is simply far too brutal for that. There are several scenes of sexual degradation and brutality, that while justified and never played for titilation, are going to turn stomachs. The film is also relentlessly sweary, to the extent that the BBFC’s consumer advice simply says 18 for “very strong language”. A baffling piece of advice given the strong drug use, violence and sexual violence on display.

However this is an extremely impressive debut, the most exciting British youth film since This is England.

Ill Manors at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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