As Ben Drew (aka Plan B)’s directorial debut, Ill Manors is a great success. Fast-paced, heavy with current issues, and a great home-grown British cast, this up and coming artistic entrepreneur is set to achieve greatness.
Ill Manors is a gritty, truthful saga of the streets, weaving together a web of stories which follow the inhabitants of a council estate. The main characters, Aaron (the brilliant Riz Ahmed) and Ed (Ed Skein) are two youths connected by their upbringing in a children’s home for boys, and this duo form the centre of the story, around which the other characters interact and the many tangents of the plot are finally brought together.
Drew tackles many important modern issues over the course of the film, including the welfare system (children’s homes, social work), drugs, violence, gangs and prostitution. But he does not stop there: rather than simply skimming the surface of these urban problems, Drew delves deeper, investigating racial tensions, sexism and other perversions which taint our society. The scenes featuring Michelle (Anouska Mond) struggling to earn a living on the streets whilst battling her drug addiction are highly cathartic, as the sex scenes are honest, rather than gratuitous, and although hard to watch, are important viewing for the audience to understand her plight. It is also refreshing to see social work in a positive light from such a film, especially as Aaron’s social worker is a young woman, providing an aspirational female role model in a world in which most women revert to heroin and prostitution.
There are some brilliant vignettes throughout the film, most memorable of which was the scene in which Ed is shown sat in a jail cell listening to the other inmates argue. Drew skilfully avoids filming the men themselves, instead conducting the conversation with shots alternating between their shoes, which in some ways tell us a lot more about the agitators and their projected images of themselves than their faces could.
The film’s soundtrack is also exceptional, with Plan B performing all of the songs himself. The opening and closing tracks cunningly frame the events of the film, and he innovatively introduces characters and their back stories through song. There are also other musical interludes throughout the film: one I particularly rated was the beat-boxing, flautist busking on the street, whose unique performance provided brilliant ambience for the scene.
Although I really enjoyed the music in the film, this was also one of many flaws. As a new director, it is understandable that Plan B wanted to be bold and present himself as an auteur, however, some of his lyrics and unjustified editing techniques come across as arrogant. For example, the constant self-reference as ‘the narrator’ should have resulted in a cohesive musical flow throughout the film, yet I found his style sometimes conflicting and disparate, which failed to bring together alien elements of the multiple narratives. Drew’s nod to Hitchcock in the final scene as he appears in a brief cameo as the taxi driver would have worked well, had not the rest of the film felt like a homage to himself: the last thing we see are Drew’s eyes, when really the star of the film has been Ahmed.
Another criticism I have to share is the over excited inclusion of so many cinematic and editing effects. At times it feels like Drew has thrown in a flashback, black and white frames, or slow zoom because he wants to show off his knowledge of visual effects, rather than apply techniques which will compliment the story, and this makes the style fragmented, ultimately hindering the flow of the narrative. For example, there are far too many flashbacks featuring ‘archive footage’ of Aaron and Ed in the care home, and instances of rewinding time, and transforming frames to stills are also over-used.
In contrast, however, the scene in which we are introduced to Chris (Lee Allen) and Kirby (Keef Coggins) is Anderson-esque and one of the best pieces of cinematography in the film, panning from left to right over the same basement room, each time jumping years forward as we watch the characters grow into underworld kingpins, accompanied by some brilliant lyrics over the score: an example of how the whole film should have been.
I found that the film was largely let down by its overly sentimental ending: although the fates of the prostitutes were wrapped up nicely, and the hint of a new life for Aaron in search of his real mother was touching, it all seemed a bit too neat. Drew understandably wanted to promise a second chance to his council estate characters, and some of these were believable, such as Aaron’s receipt of his mothers letter, and Jody’s triumph over the bullies. The burning pub scene, however, in which Aaron catches a baby thrown from a second story window, felt a bit too Eastenders Christmas Special, and left me feeling a little cold. A better ending, I thought, would have been the shot in which Chris throws the gun into the Thames: symbolic of how the lives lost and the effort exerted by the characters was all for nothing.
Ben Drew’s debut is something to be applauded, tackling issues with a fantastic cast, featuring many new faces, and a brilliant soundtrack. Despite its sentimentality and over excited editing, Ill Manors should not be missed, as the story and music alone are enough to satisfy.