Ill Manors is full of ting dat’ll make you sick blud. The characters are ripped from the streets of London, as are many of the non-professional actors. Debut director Ben Drew (a.k.a. British rapper Plan B) attempts to dig beneath the blazing front page pictures of looters to reveal the reasons behind the madness. Drew doesn’t like the media calling these kids ‘chavs’ and he makes it his mission to offer some context and explanation for the actions of what so many have called “out-of-control” youth.
The film takes a multi-stranded narrative approach (similar to Pulp Fiction but with far less humour and far more grit) with a range of characters mixing in circles that lead to frequent confrontations. A missing phone, a missing gun and a missing baby propel the characters like pin balls bouncing back and forth around the East End streets. Riz Ahmed (Four Lions, Shifty) stars as Aaron, one of the rare truly sympathetic characters who is a bit too smart, and a bit too empathetic to be mixing with the kind of low-lives his social circle keeps him bonded with. His mate Ed, played with relish in a perfect performance by Ed Skrein, is a vile creation. The pair grew up in foster care together suggesting they are both products of the same environment, but Ed (for the most part) cares only for himself and about making money, no matter what it takes. Their story as they search for Ed’s lost phone brings them in to contact with ‘crack-whore’ Michelle, drug dealer ‘Big Chris’ and various other prostitutes, gang members and drug addicts. A kid becomes embroiled in a gang, an immigrant loses her baby and the narratives thread together in surprising and clever ways.
It’s an occasionally realistic portrayal of life at the bottom of the pile with characters struggling to survive on tough streets. Drew’s not making social realism though, and spices it up with a dramatic story that takes in drug deals, shootings, stabbings, beatings, prostitution, pimping and even Russian sex slave traffickers. With this many characters, it’s hard to offer up much in the way of explanation for why some of them are so utterly hideous and behave in such despicable ways. Plan B’s songs on the soundtrack add to the momentum and the emotion, tell more of the story and provide a fresh and brilliant soundtrack, but still fail to fully capture what is missing.
The women are at the very bottom of the pile. Prostitutes and illegal immigrants referred to only as skets, bitches and slags, it’s a grim portrait of the inequalities of the streets. Forget being labelled a chav, it’s women that come off the worst with Drew’s female characters enduring all manner of degradation. But is this the typical rampant misogyny of much rap music or the ugly reflection of how the gender divide grows even more severe in the underclass? Some might argue the film has no strong female characters, but at least these characters are victims that the audience can really get behind. Drew’s female characters are sidelined with the men taking centre stage, but the women are the ones you will really root for, no matter how underwritten and over-abused they are.
The special features offer more in the way of pimping, whoring, grotesque men and victimised women. The deleted scenes show the excesses of Drew’s writing have been trimmed with scenes of vile men showing little to no regard for the women they abuse. Drew’s short films included here offer only more of the same and one of the music videos presented on the disc is for his collaboration with Chase and Status. ‘Pieces’ is filled with more misogynistic undertones as an ex-girlfriend trashes Plan B’s apartment, shags his next door neighbour and kidnaps his flatmate, all while making sure the whole thing is filmed so she can deliver the evidence to him in the recording studio.
The ‘making of’ documentary is short but contains some interesting insights into the production with Drew speaking about his purpose and the difficulties of filming on a low budget. Riz Ahmed and Ed Skrein pop up for interviews but it’s not the most in-depth of documentaries; lasting only 16 minutes.The film looks and sounds great on Blu-ray, particularly with the beautiful time-lapse shots that appear throughout the film and then again, edited together as a special feature on the disc. Despite the gritty locations and often hideous characters, the darkness of the film is captured in high definition with beauty present in the cinematography, if less so in the story.
Watch the TED lecture with Ben Drew (exclusive to Blu-Ray) to hear more from the man behind Ill Manors. It offers up more insight into the purpose and context of the film and is arguably more powerful than anything his fictional narrative has to offer unfortunately.
At the end of the day, Ill Manors is a brutally striking debut that shows the huge promise of Ben Drew as a writer and film-maker. His vision is ambitious beyond so many other British films, but what the film fails to do is really offer the insight needed into the actions of some of the low-life characters. Some are treated brilliantly (Big Chris has an excellent bit of back story) but the focus on too many characters leaves some with short shrift, most notably the women. It’s a real shame as the men may be the illest in the manor, but it’s the women who bear the brunt of their sickness.
Ill Manors is out on DVD, Blu-Ray, Download and On-Demand from Monday 8th October.
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