‘Are you sitting comfortably?’ That’s rapper Plan B talking at the start of his first film (written and directed under his real name Ben Drew; the soundtrack album is out next month ). It’s a trick question. He doesn’t want you to be comfortable with this angry, battering ram of a film – set around Forest Gate in east London where he grew up. In his own life, Drew was born with a one-in-a-million talent – like some God-given lottery-win. That, with a bit luck and elbow-grease, got him out of Forest Gate. His film is about the people he left behind: you show me a chav, and I’ll show you a kid who’s been let down, kicked down, abused, excluded. ‘Ill Manors’ isn’t perfect, but it gets under the skin – despairing, brutally eloquent and frighteningly real.
You can almost sense the frenzy of ideas whirling about inside Drew’s head – and his script goes into storytelling overdrive. Everything in the film is true, he says – something he’s read in a newspaper or that’s happened to friend. And it’s relentless, without a chink of hope. A crack-addicted prostitute steals a phone from drug dealer Ed (Ed Skrein). To pay for a new one, he marches her from pub to chicken shop to kebab shop, pimping her out until she can hardly walk (late in the night, bored, he offers two men a 2-for-1 deal). His mate Aaron (Riz Ahmed, brilliant, as ever) is vaguely troubled watching this, but not enough to stop it.
Taking a leaf out of Ken Loach’s rulebook, Drew casts mostly non-pro actors. He’s even given his godfather a role as a fortysomething drug dealer not long out of prison who plies a 14-year-old with crack to get her into bed. There’s at least one plotline too many here (one involving a trafficked sex worker feels tacked on, as does Ed’s scheme to sell a baby). But Drew hammers home the dog-eat-dog psychology on the street. And all the while he shows his characters as children in flashback. Aaron and Ed grew up in care (Ed, perhaps coincidentally, looks strikingly like photos we saw on the news of Baby P, an angelically blond, blue-eyed toddler). When does a vulnerable child stop being a victim, Drew seems to ask? When he picks up his first joint? His first knife? When he looks old enough to steal your phone?
There are plenty of flaws here, but instinctively ‘Ill Manors’ feels important – like some British films of the 1980s (‘Meantime’, ‘Scum’) that spoke of a generation out of work and out of hope. Today’s problems feel more serious (or do we always think that in hard times?). Everyone’s talking about Plan Bs at the moment. I’m not sure this Plan B has all the answers, but he sure as hell knows the problem…
The Guardian, Thursday 7 June 2012
Ill Manors is a multi-stranded urban crime drama set in east London, the debut feature film from Ben Drew, otherwise known as singer-songwriterPlan B, and developed from his widely hailed song of the same name, all about the 2011 summer riots. The first half-hour of this movie is great: chaotic, inventive, energetic. But after this, the dynamism worryingly leaks out of the film; it turns out to be disappointingly and determinedly apolitical, while the lairy characters and situations look increasingly forced, derivative and unconvincing, with a touch of Guy Ritchie. By the time Natalie Press turns up, playing a woman forced to work as a prostitute by a sex-trafficking gang, the film has turned into a geezery Brit-Pulp Fiction knockoff. Riz Ahmed – so great in Chris Morris’s Four Lions and Eran Creevy’s Shifty – is at the centre of film, playing a troubled guy called Aaron, but his character is bafflingly flat and dull, and the film’s finale is wildly sentimental.
But the opening has power and flair. It begins with a great rush of energy and a swirl of images from cinematographer Gary Shaw, and a musical track that subtly and rather hauntingly remixes Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals. Using a mix of professional and non-professional actors, Drew sets out to dramatise the despair of those with no prospects other than selling drugs, with no sense of community or identity, which manifests itself partly in a neurotic obsession with their mobile phones, of which they have large numbers, all on pay-as-you-go so that they can’t be traced by “the feds”.
It is all about dysfunction, humiliation and losing face. Pre-teen Jake (Ryan de la Cruz Indiana) tries to buy drugs with £20 that his mate has stolen from his mum; dealer Marcel (Nick Sagar) takes the money but won’t give him the drugs until Jake actually hits the friend who gave him the cash. Having bought acceptance with shame, Jake gets out of his depth in gang culture, and Marcel himself is humiliated by ageing dealer and ex-con Kirby (Keith Coggins), forced to strip naked in the street at gunpoint – and Kirby is himself humiliated by his former protegé Chris (Lee Allen). Meanwhile, hard man Ed (Ed Skrein) terrorises crack-addicted Michelle (Anouska Mond) into having sex with a series of sleazy guys: a truly horrible sequence. With all this, Drew shows how it’s all about male pride and male fear.
There are some strong moments. John Cooper Clarke has a great choric cameo with a poem entitled Pity the Plight of Young Fellows. He floats into view almost surreally, a wraith, a ghost, reciting his work in one corner of a deeply sinister drinking establishment that looks as if it should be featured every week on the Sky 3 programme Britain’s Toughest Pubs. With his black suit, shock of black hair, and behind his enigmatic dark glasses, Clarke almost looks like a post-punk version of TS Eliot’s blind Tiresias, foresuffering all the violence and gangland despair happening heedlessly in front of him. It’s a pleasure to see him, and he is smartly used by Drew, although he does have a humour and maturity that is missing from the rest of film.
With Britain currently euphoric about the Jubilee and the Olympics, and indulging in an orgy of red-white-and-blue, this would certainly be the moment for Drew to puncture the complacency, and talk again about something that the officialdom is so strenuously trying to forget: the riots. His original track was praised for saying something powerful and committed about the disorder. Frankly the film doesn’t; or at least only very cautiously and indirectly, in the sense that it shows the poverty, alienation and despair that arguably created the conditions for violence. Some TV footage at the very beginning alludes to the riots, and a melodramatic moment at the end may be a fictional transformation of one famous news photo. There are the now mandatory shots of Olympic Park and the Olympic Stadium: scenes which are in danger of becoming as cliched in London films as shots of the Gherkin building were a decade ago. These knowing images are being worked pretty hard, and the movie runs out of steam after about half an hour, a kind of extended pop video. Really, Ill Manors looks like many other British urban crime films; it could have been made at almost any time, and there’s not much substance under the urban style.
By Tim Robey
07 Jun 2012
The rapper Plan B, aka Ben Drew, makes his directing debut this week with a film that takes the “com” out of “uncompromising”. iLL Manors is hard-hitting in all the worst ways, like being repeatedly thumped by a randomly furious street hawker. What Drew is mainly selling is his own reputation as a poet of the disaffected, but we needn’t buy it. Not on this evidence.
The standard defence of any such grim urban tract is that it’s daring to tell the truth, squaring up to the violence, misogyny and nihilism on London’s estates with an unflinching bravery other filmmakers are too cowardly to exhibit. Here, that’s not just a critic’s recourse but a cred-hungry movie’s inbuilt pose.
It’s important to concede two things: that Drew isn’t glorifying a way of life, and that there’s a certain raw muscle to his visuals. Still, his ear for dark realities is tinnier than a soup cupboard.
The movie transpires over seven days in Forest Gate, introducing us to a motley and interconnected bunch of straggling criminals. The nominal hero is Aaron, a role relying heavily on Riz Ahmed’s natural amiability, but we stray from him frequently into subplots where almost no one is worth getting to know: the vengeance-obsessed drug dealer Chris (Lee Allen) is a waste of whole reels.
Drew interrupts his underpowered storytelling with antically busy rap montages, spliced together from cameraphone and CCTV footage, which only serve to make his lyrics blare out more ostentatiously. “She was once a princess / Now she’s a mess,” we’re told of the unfortunate Michelle (Anouska Mond), who’s yanked around various burger joints to turn tricks for a thuggish dealer called Ed (Ed Skrein).
Many of Drew’s anecdotes are torn from life, where escape routes for these characters could well be thin on the ground, but wanting to liberate them from his imprisoning dirge of a movie is the more urgent priority while you’re in front of it. When Natalie Press arrives, playing an illegal Polish immigrant who abandons her baby to Aaron’s involuntary care on a train, the plotting kicks into both a higher and sillier gear: you may not guess that the infant’s short-term fate is to be dangled from the top floor of a burning pub, but retrospectively it’s all but inevitable.