Better known as the musician responsible for the critically-acclaimed UK Chart-topping album The Defamation of Strickland Banks, Ben Drew a.k.a. Plan B attempts to bring his creative talent to another medium with an ambitious cinematic debut, Ill Manors. A gritty, unrelenting look at the social underbelly of East London, with a weaving storyline that is peppered with flashbacks and explanatory vignettes courtesy of Drew’s hip-hop stylings, this is not a picture for the faint of heart. Aptly, the film opens with our auteur intoning, “Are you sitting comfortably? Pull your seatbelts on, ‘cos you’re in for a harrowing ride”.
Right from the off, it is clear that Ben Drew is a gauche but bold film-maker. The sprawling story and peculiar narrative style defy convention – not always effectively, but nonetheless the unique methods used are pretty compelling. There are obvious echoes of Tarantino here, as the timeframe jumps back and forth and the central focus switches abruptly, and the over-the-top characters and melodramatic plot would certainly not be out of place in one of Quentin’s efforts. Drew has a similar knack for a gorgeous shot; visually, Ill Manors is perfectly executed. There’s also a nice surprise cameo of punk poet John Cooper-Clarke, reading from Pity the Plight of Young Fellows – a piece specially written for the film.
The movie’s main theme is one of respect; how the characters, almost all with redeeming features to a varying degree, sacrifice their humanity to keep their heads afloat in an unforgiving world. As Rousseau said, ‘born free but everywhere in chains’, these are individuals who are prisoners of their environment, filled with impotent rage and an inability to break free. It would be nicely done but for the fact that the major chink in Ben Drew’s arsenal – unusually for a song-writer – is dialogue; conversation is stilted, monosyllabic and dull, and it is utterly unbelievable that the lower class of Britain talk in such a way. Some might argue that the predominantly amateur cast account for this, but even fine actors like Riz Ahmed and Ed Skrein can do little with the unpolished script they have to work with here. In any case, Noel Clarke’s Kidulthood and its sequel Adulthood – both infinitely superior films to Ill Manors – featured much more convincing speech from equally amateur performers.
Plot-holes are rife. In a movie where stories have to be intertwined with delicate precision, there are far too many instances of random chance being used – at one point, Natalie Press’s Katia happens to look out a window and spot Ahmed’s Aaron at the exact moment he is walking by. This is lazy storytelling, relying on deus ex machina to keep a clunky tale from totally disintegrating. Of particular irritation are the clichéd depictions of urban inhabitants you simply would not expect from someone so familiar with his subject – in fact, Drew grew up in the film’s setting, Forest Gate, so the risible, two-dimensional portrayals are all the more perplexing.
The acting deserves a mention, as it is fairly impressive on the whole. Ahmed is, yet again, particularly brilliant in the movie’s central role, and he does nothing but enhance a reputation forged with performances in Four Lions and Dead Set. Anouska Mond also excels, as heroin-addict/prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold Michelle.
Ben Drew must be praised for his vision and ambition, and he shows enough here to give every indication of becoming a real force in British film-making. However, ultimately Ill Manors falls disappointingly short of the mark, with too many flaws that rob from the overall enjoyment. A nice idea, but poorly-executed.
Sebastian Clare has a Master’s Degree from University College Dublin, and is a freelance writer and broadcaster.
Ill Manors (2012)
Director Ben Drew
Screenplay Ben Drew
Producer Atif Ghani
Director of Photography Gary Shaw
Art Director Greg Shaw, Fabrice Spelta
Costumes Violetta Kassapi, Alex Watherston
With Riz Ahmed (Aaron), Ed Skrein (Ed), Natalie Press (Katia), Anouska Mond (Michelle), Nick Sagar (Marcel)
Runtime 121 minutes