LONDON - Not exactly the kind of upbeat commercial for multi-cultural London that tourist chiefs will be pushing ahead of this summer’s Olympic celebrations, Ill Manors is a multi-character drama set among the violent drug dealers and teenage gangs who inhabit the housing projects on the British capital’s disadvantaged easterly fringes. A forensic examination of urban crime, its social causes and corrosive effects, the film manages to be both a gripping thriller and a topical social critique. The debut feature of Ben Drew, a platinum-selling rapper who records under the alias Plan B, this is an impressively mature and technically assured work. For film fans unfamiliar with Drew’s musical career, just imagine if Eminem had written and directed The Wire.
Shot on a limited budget - reportedly just $160,000 - Ill Manors looks like a much more polished and expensive production. Although most of the cast are non-professional unknowns, the charismatic Riz Ahmed will be familiar to devotees of left-field British cinema. And while some of the London street slang may prove a little impenetrable to audiences outside Britain, the urban setting and crime thriller format should play well in foreign markets. Essentially, Drew has put a contemporary London gloss on familiar ingredients. He has made a hip-hop street opera about boys – and girls – in the hood.
Ill Manors is not autobiographical, although it was party inspired by real events witnessed by the director and his friends. The film plots several days in the lives of several loosely linked characters in Forest Gate, Drew’s own home neighborhood, close to East London’s new Olympic Park. Aaron (Ahmed) is the downtrodden deputy to small-time drug dealer Ed (Ed Skrein), a relationship which becomes strained when the latter ruthlessly pimps out crack-addicted prostitute Michelle (Anouska Mond) to a string of sleazy clients to pay for his lost cellphone.
Meanwhile, Kirby (Keith Coggins, Drew’s real-life godfather) and Chris (50 Cent look-alike Lee Allen) are former partners in crime whose friendship has soured to the point of deadly violence, and Katya (Natalie Press) is a trafficked sex slave from Eastern Europe who resorts to desperate measures to protect her baby from her mobster captors. The grimness is layered pretty thick, but handled with authenticity, some welcome flashes of dark humour, and a finely controlled sense of slow-building dread. The non-linear plotlines also weave together with a satisfying symmetry that never feels too contrived.
The 28-year-old Drew has made an extremely assured shift into screenwriting and directing with Ill Manors. His musical persona is also cleverly integrated into the fabric of the movie, with six new Plan B track accompanying flashback montages that serve as succinct biographical summaries for each of the main characters. Although Drew is currently completing a spin-off album, his film is emphatically not some feature-length promo-video project. The musical sequences have a strong narrative purpose, but are never allowed to swamp the action.
Drew cites the French director Mathieu Kassovitz’s classic 1995 hip-hop thriller La Haine as a key inspiration for Ill Manors, although there are some obvious Scorsese homages here too – specifically Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, including a direct quote from Robert De Niro’s much-copied mirror speech which thankfully does not linger long enough to lapse into film-geek cliché. The intertwined plotlines also invoke a tradition of multi-strand urban dramas such as Pulp Fiction, Amores Perros and Crash, although the tone here is darker and less forgiving than any of them.
Before Ill Manors, Drew’s cinematic career consisted of a few minor acting roles, touching on similar London-set Brit-grit subject matter in the 2008 juvenile delinquent drama Adulthood and the 2009 Michael Caine thriller Harry Brown. Later this year he makes his leading-man debut alongside Ray Winstone in The Sweeney, a big-screen reboot of a much-loved British TV cop drama from the 1970s. The director of that film is Nick Love, a kind of low-rent Guy Ritchie best known for shallow, glossy crime capers set in London gangland.
But Drew himself digs much deeper into the causes of crime than film-makers like Love or Ritchie, shunning the romanticized bad-boy fantasy of his home city’s violent underclass for a more nuanced and depressing picture. Most of his characters have been brutalised by their harsh environment: broken families, care homes, reform schools and prison figure strongly. Bullying and street crime are ever present threats. Parents, police and authority figures are almost entirely absent from the drama.
Social inequality is clearly a force for evil in this hellish urban milieu, but personal responsibility is not forgotten either. Many of these characters willingly seal their own grim fate, like the underage wannabe hoodlum (Ryan de la Cruz) who is arm-twisted into becoming a pre-teen assassin, with catastrophic consequences. Abusers become victims, and vice versa. This non-judgmental story ends on a cautiously hopeful note, but it benefits from not offering heavy-handed slogans or simplistic solutions.
Behind its dense welter of detail and technical razzle-dazzle, Ill Manors occasionally reminds you that this is a debut feature, with the odd wobbly performance or clumsy plot twist. Some of the fringe characters - Russian gangsters, cynical cops, crack whores with hearts of gold –feel too much like stock B-movie archetypes. A little flabby and sprawling at two hours, the edit could be tighter. The final act, featuring a stolen baby locked on the top floor of a burning building, strains too hard for pathos and ends up as overcooked melodrama.
But these are relatively minor flaws in an otherwise powerful and timely debut. Ill Manors has been hailed in Britain as a cinematic response to the riots that shook several English inner cities last summer, a line that Drew himself has now adopted, even though he began developing the project years earlier. But his movie does not need such stilted marketing angles. On its own terms, this is a gritty, compelling snapshot of a contemporary London all too rarely seen on the big screen.
Venue: public screening, London, June 6 2012
Production companies: Microwave, Film London, BBC Films, Aimimage Productions, Plan B Enterprises, Gunslinger
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Ed Skrein, Natalie Press, Anouska Mond, Lee Allen, Keith Coggins
Director: Ben Drew
Producer: Atif Ghani
Executive producers: Ahmad Ahmadzadeh, Sam Eldridge, Justin Marciano, Nicky Stein, Nick Taussig, Kris Thykier
Director of photography: Gary Shaw
Writer: Ben Drew
Editors: Farrah Drabu, David Freeman, Sotira Kyriacou, Hugh Williams
Music: Plan B
Sales agent: Revolver
Rated 18, 121 minutes