Let me first start with a warning, if you’re hoping for an evening that isn’t too traumatic, don’t watch iLL Manors. However if you want a movie that’s innovative, challenging and has a lot of ambition (particularly for a microbudget British movie), it’s quite a ride.
Written and directed by Ben Drew – aka Plan B – it’s a film where he tries to push the envelope and go beyond the usual ideas of the Brit flick, in the same way as he’s done with his music. That’s signalled from the outset, where he truncates 20-odd years of a young man’s life into a few minutes, telling the story through the lyrics of a rap song (which includes samples from the score to Disney’s Beauty & The Beast, no less). It’s unconventional but surprisingly effective.
What follows is a tale that varies from feeling fairly well-worn to showing things in a way that’s incredibly fresh and vital. There’s a slightly Pulp Fiction feels to the plot, which tells several interlinked tales, sometimes going off on a tangent for a while or jumping back in time to show something from a different perspective. The main thread follows Aaron (Riz Ahmed), a young man from the mean streets of East London who seems to be one of the few people in his circle who still has some semblance of a conscience.
His friend, Ed (Ed Skrein), is less discerning, involved in drug dealing and thinks nothing of pimping out a woman to various men to force her to pay his pay for a phone he believes she stole from him. There’s also drug dealer Kirby, back in the East End after 15 years in prison. Despite his time inside he’s keen to take up just where he left off, but he underestimates the new, younger criminals who’ve moved onto ‘his’ patch. These tales are mixed with several others, from a teenager flirting on the edges of gang life to a drug addict mother and the baby she leaves on a tube train. All this plays out against the backdrop of the regeneration going on in preparation for the Olympics, suggesting that despite billions being thrown at the area, it’s not necessarily helping those on the streets.
Right at the beginning the movie tells you it’s going to be a harrowing tale and it certainly lives up to that promise. Although iLL Manors does offer some sense of hope and that underneath the crime and social deprivation these people do have a decent side, as the special features attest it’s more interested in highlighting how young people get involved in crime and end up living lives that for many less deprived people, makes them ‘scum’ who aren’t worth a second thought. Ben Drew is keen to show that these people aren’t inherently evil and often grow up in incredibly difficult circumstances, feeling completely shunned by society and who get a sense of power and community in a criminal life. It’s here the Drew’s skill really shines. The scenes and songs explaining these people’s lives are incredibly powerful, clever and an astonishing mix of imagery and music.
Elsewhere there are a few problems. The film is a tad flabby and could have done with a little tightening up in terms of both the script and the pacing. It’s also true that while there’s a lot of ambitious, unusual and incredibly forceful filmmaking, there are definitely times when it dips back into run-of-the-mill urban thriller territory. It’s never bad – indeed it’s always pretty good – but it’s just a shame the bravura elements, such as the way it plays with time and perspectives, couldn’t have been more consistently used, so they tend to be bunched together with gaps where it feels like they’ve been forgotten.
I personally also had issues with how relentlessly grim its version of life for young people in East London is. My problem is that it’s a world that’s far from the one I grew up in, and so it’s difficult for me to judge how real it is. It’s one of those films that often feels like it’s telling a dark, hidden truth, but sometimes it’s difficult to tell if that’s because genuinely real or if its grim look at life almost fools us into believing things are worse than they are. Like I said, I can’t quite tell, and it could just be that condensing the real but darker side of East End life into one film makes it feels like it’s forgetting that things aren’t always bad from the moment someone wakes up to the minute they go to sleep.
I kind of had the same reaction as I do to Lars Von Trier movies, where no matter how moved I am, I still find it tough to believe these people’s lives can be so relentlessly bad all the time. In iLL Manors there’s hardly a conversation that doesn’t end (and often begin) with someone shouting at somebody else. It gives the movie great conflict and a sense of aggression, but it’s tough to believe everybody shouts at everyone else all the time and that they never just have a decent time (even if accidentally). Like I said, maybe I’m wrong and I should look at this as a deliberate trip into the darkest side of East End life, rather than being a fully rounded depiction of these people’s lives.
Even with these issues, it’s still a strong film, and a suggestion that if he decides to stick to filmmaking, Drew could become one the best British filmmakers around. As a first time efforts it’s incredibly impressive, and while there may be a few issues he could look at for his sophomore effort, iLL Manors is still an incredibly impressive debut.
There’s also a good compliment of special features on the Blu-ray, including an informative ‘making of…’, which talks about the difficulty of making the movie on the real East End streets where it’s set. Bren Drew discusses his impetus behind making the film, which is partly trying to explain to the type of people who dismiss those from impoverished council estates as troublesome societal filth, that the truth is actually a lot more complex than that. He goes further into that with his Ted Talk on the disc, where he talks about trying to finds ways out of the vicious circle deprived people often find themselves in (something that’s sadly a little lacking in the movie).
There are also a couple of short film, including ‘Bizness Woman’, which is part short, part music video and came about when Ben Drew had to distil a 20-minute short he’d written down to five minutes as part of a film project Mike Figgis was directing. There’s also Drew’s very first directorial effort, the 17-minute short ‘Michelle’, which is essentially one of the storylines from iLL Manors, but with Adam Deacon taking the role Riz Ahmed has in the full film. They’re both pretty good, although it’s kind of interesting with Michelle how much more assured Drew’s direction feels in the final movie.
Overall Verdict: While I have a few issues about the realism and its relentlessly grim tone, Ben Drew’s feature length debut is an impressive, ambitious piece of socially conscious storytelling, which suggests he could become an important voice in British filmmaking.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac