Ill Manors: Film Review
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.