“I am the narrator, the social commentator” declares writer and director Ben Drew, aka rapper and singer Plan B, at the beginning of his gritty feature debut Ill Manors in which, with the help of professional and non-professional actors, he attempts to shed some light on the mean streets of East London.
Set in Forest Gate, where Drew grew up, the film is based on real life events that happened to him or his friends. Like the song of the same name the film is a protest, an attempt to demonstrate that nurture will always trump nature and the cycle will continue unabated unless poverty and disaffection are combated.
The multi-platinum selling artist and actor, who will star alongside Ray Winstone as George Carter in the 2012 remake of The Sweeney, said as much in a TEDxObserver event in March, when he outlined society’s failure to nurture its disadvantaged youth in his lecture.
Described as an urban musical, Plan B’s music gives the film a unique perspective as it unravels like a feature length music video. The micro budget movie uses various techniques including flash backs, camera phones, 35mm film and jump cutting to interweave the film’s multiple storylines and the non linear results are refreshing.
At least they are in the first half of the movie when the tales of drug dealing, violence, prostitution and exploitation show an uncompromising and unflattering view of gangland culture.
There are moments of brilliance too. Among the newcomers is Ryan de la Cruz Indiana, who will have a great future in front of him based on his portrayal of fourteen year old Jake, a boy dragged into the seedy underworld by Nick Sagar’s (NCIS: Los Angeles) unnervingly dangerous hoodlum Marcel, which is reminiscent of City of God. Keith Coggins stands out as slimy ex-drug kingpin Kirby and Lee Allen is charming and ruthless as the new pretender Chris.
Funded by BFI, UK Film Council, BBC and Film London Microwave, Ill Manor’s central tenet is about life chances and childhood. Riz Ahmed’s (Four Lions, Shifty) drug pusher Aaron and hard-man Ed (MC Ed Skrein) are products of the state foster care system. Anouska Mond (In Your Dreams) is devastating as crack-head prostitute Michelle, a victim since childhood, particularly in a harrowing twist on the concept of a take-away.
However, when illegal immigrant and sex prisoner Kayta, convincingly portrayed by Natalie Press (Fifty Dead Men Walking, Red Road), is introduced, the film starts to lose its way. Her story feels shoehorned and it affects the pace of the urban drama, ultimately leading to an EastEnder’s-type soap finale.
And in place of the Queen Vic, we have the Earl of Essex pub, possibly in a nod towards the London riots in 2011 as the Earl gained fame for rebelling against Elizabeth I and parliament.
Punk poet John Cooper Clark performs Pity the Plight of Young Fellows, specially written for the film, in the pubs dark interior. The effect is mesmerising as poetry and rap converse between the generations.
Ill Manors is part ultra realism, part soap opera and is full of memorable characters. There is the odd cliché and clumsy homage but there is also genuine and intense drama. The melodramatic ending is a bit too tidy and unnecessarily sentimental, but that’s not enough to write it off.
Ill Manors is at times a sharp, insightful and watchable film with intelligent touches and I look forward to the talented musician’s next movie.
Ill Manors is showing at FACT now